"Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. . . .m These words from T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Wasteland," displaying the inward uncertainties of the 1920's, might be a useful text for parents of college-bound students of the 1980's. Now that close to one million seventeen- and eighteen-year olds are entering college it is a good time to talk. But what shall we say to them? What can we say to them, when their rooms are still not picked up, when they are off every night at the movies or at a disco or at some beach, and when the money they earn during the day seems to be spent mostly on their own pleasures -- records, magazines, clothes, bracelets, banana-boats -- with their lives fast becoming a display case for the brand names of the world? What really can we say to them when they never talk to us? Or when, if they do talk, they say, "Leave me alone. You don't understand my emotions. No one does."
Well, we can say a few things.And judging from a friend of mine whose father died recently, we should say a few things before it is too late. My friend said , "The great regret I have is that my father never told me what he thought of me. I always wanted to know that, but he never told me. And now I'll never know." But oh, the agitated heart Till someone really find us out.
Having an agitated heart would seem to be a fair description of someone new to college, and the paradox that Robert Frost's poem touches on would seem also to fit such a case: What sometimes appears like hiding may really be a desire to be looked for, to be found out, to be spoken to directly.
Still, what can we say to these 17-year olds -- gay towards their friends, morose to their parents -- and how do we start? PErhaps we can take a cue from the things teenagers have thought it worth saying to each other at an important time in their lives -- that day in late spring when their school yearbooks come out. That is the time when they write down for their friends the kinds of things which they want said to themselves. Teenagers cherish from year to year these books because in their margins is a dictionary of their worth as individuals, with the entries signed by their friends. The usual comment is something like this: "Beth, you're a good kid. I'm glad I got to know you better this year," or "Michael, you have been a true friend, I hope we become even better friends this summer."
However poorly spelled and uncertainly punctuated these entries, they are assurances of one's identity and accomplishments as a real human being, notches on the precious arrows of one's personality. A certain daring is required, of course, both by the writer and by the owner of such a book to go through this process of recognition; but they seem to have that daring. Why don't we?
Actually, a school yearbook is an interesting item as a gauge to what is missing from the official parameters of young lives. Those accomplishments that are printed up and dutifully noted by school authorities -- excelence in academics and sports, participation in worthwhile activities -- are so much like the things parents somehow expect of their children. And yet students themselves know that such things are only half their story, and indeed, the lesser half. As a consequence, they have to complete those yearbooks by writing in the margins. They have to tell it like it was.
As parents it might be well if we were more aware of those margins, because it may turn out that those margins were very close to the center of things. We can publish forever our official approvals and disapprovals ("If you had trained a little harder you might have made the track team. If you had listened in class you'd know the assignment"), but until we address ourselves to the margins we will always be a little off center, a little out of touch, maybe even strangers in our own families.
Knoledgeable parents know their children are not clones, following a developmental path preordained for them, but are more like mysterious hybrids producing entirely new flowers, entirely new fruit. If we could get beyond the compass of our small approvals and try to figure out for a moment what our children are admirable for, we might be able to find a place in the margins of their yearbooks.
Oh, they probably haven't been in the Honor Society or on the football team; but they probably haven't been sneaks either. What a wonderful thing not to be! We could make that clear to them. They may not be well-disciplined; but they aren't mean spirited either. We could tell them that. If they don't themselves excel in certain things, they are eager to see others excel, and indeed they help others to do just that with their encouragement. What a wonderful quality to have! If they can't keep their rooms presentable, or collect themselves for a history test, or buy stamps for their own letters, or pay their half of the phone bill, they have been generous to a fault with their friends. In short, they have been nice. (Not to us, of course, but it may be hard to be nice to what seems more like an outline of good behavior than a rather frail human being who happens also to be a parent.) They have followed, after all, what they esteemed; and we must clump along behind them.
It is a seemingly small thing to do, to tell a person what you think of him, and yet I have been trying for weeks to think what I might say to my daughter in these next few days to make her entry into college a little less agitated, a little more assured. I still don't know what I'll say to her, but I hope it will deal with some of the qualities I have come to admire in her: her courage, for instance, or at least what I take to be courage -- her willingness to tackle new things without any assurance as to how they'll come out. Or her happy energy in dealing with others. In this respect she minds me a little of what G. K. Chesterton said of Francis of Assisi: "A certain precipitousness was the very poise of his soul." Or her loyalty to her sister, even when her sister is wrong. Loyalty seems to be one of those things which older people sometimes lose as they maneuver in the world. Or the good-heartedness of her nature, which prevents her from ever deliberately doing something to make others feel bad.
I would like to touch on these things, anyway. Because I'm a little fearful that if I don't say such things my daughter may end her college years as Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock ended his own aspirations, with too little straight talk coming much too late. As Prufrock says at the close of that rueful poem: "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/. . ./ Till human voices wake us, and we drown." It doesn't have to be.