- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

“Right this way, Katie,” the admissions director says. In an instant, my daughter disappears down the hall, and just as quickly, her college adventure begins.

Of course, she doesn’t head off to college until the fall of 2007, so I suppose I’m indulging in a bit of maternal melodrama.

Nonetheless, my first baby, who it seems only minutes ago tried to climb out of the seat belt in the grocery cart to reach a forbidden bag of marshmallows, is walking into the office of a college admissions officer for a 30-minute interview.

More to the point, she is heading into the interview, and I am not.

There’s no way I can nudge her to remember something outstanding she did in the past that might impress this man, no chance for me to correct her grammar or advise her to speak more slowly or to touch her hand gently to get her to stop fidgeting. She’s really on her own, and short of an experience of mental telepathy (which I have never had), I can’t communicate with her.

All I can do is hope and pray that nearly 17 years of parenting on the part of my husband and me will result in a conversation that reveals her good character, her humor and intellect and especially her decency and compassion.

I won’t lie. I wish there were a way I could stand by the door and listen.

It occurs to me that my child is engaged in a discussion with someone whose perceptions might seal her fate. Suddenly I realize that the whole college interview thing is a bit of a litmus test for quality parenting.

What if that little file the admissions director carried with him contains a checklist of vital observations that might make or break Katie’s chances of getting into her school of choice?

Clean fingernails? Check.

Flossed teeth? Check.

Eye contact when speaking to an adult? Check.

Neurotic mother in the waiting room? Check.

Thankfully, I’m not alone. The admissions office is filled with nervous-looking moms and dads trying to look relaxed as they flip through the pages of the college’s brochures. We’re all pretending to be reading about the wonderful opportunities our children will enjoy if they enroll here.

But really, we’re wondering if our parenting will stand up to the scrutiny that goes beyond grade-point averages and test scores, reaching all the way to manners, ideas and philosophies.

No wonder we’re all antsy.

The “half-hour interview” lasts more than an hour. When they return to the waiting area, Katie is chatting amiably with the admissions director, who turns and asks me, “Do you have any questions?”

I know he means “Do you have questions about the college?” I have only one question — How did she do? — which, of course, I don’t ask.

Instead, we join a tour group, led by a current student who walks backward for more than an hour while taking us across the campus. Amazingly, he never trips or runs into traffic as he fills us in on college life.

We wander the grounds in a parent-child clump, listening carefully as our tour guide points out dormitories, classrooms, libraries and student centers.

He talks about faculty members and foreign-study programs and choosing a major.

He mentions that the library closes earlier on Friday and Saturday nights because the school encourages students to take time for socializing.

He tells us about cafeteria food and coffee shops. He even mentions a special program that lets students submit family recipes that can be prepared by the food service staff in case the student gets homesick for a favorite dish.

That’s when it hits me. A year from now, her college choice will be made, and we’ll be getting set to move our eldest child to her new home — a tiny room she’ll share with another college freshman in a building full of 18-year-olds whose lives, like my daughter’s, will at last begin to take shape.

If the 12 months ahead are anything like the previous 16 years, I expect time will pass in an unwelcome flash, the days and weeks colliding in moments I can’t capture or sometimes even recall.

Yet oddly, I’m wistful but not worried. Watching Katie absorb the campus tour, I realize she’s projecting herself into a future that seems completely right, for which she will be completely ready.

I confess, the “melodrama mom” in me wants to whisper in her ear, “Just remember, sweetie, there’s no place like home.” But instead, I give her a smile and raise my eyebrows as if to say, “Cool place, huh?”

She smiles back, and it feels to me as if we have shared a whole conversation about leaving home and looking forward — in only a passing, knowing glance.

Thankfully, I still get a year with her before we start shopping for dorm accessories and shipping her off on her academic adventure. For now, her job is just to dream, to imagine what college will be like and to envision herself in a place that feels like home.

I just can’t help but wonder what home will be like when she leaves.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to [email protected]comcast.net.

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