Her turn

Little sisters. Sometimes they seem as if they'll never grow up. Then one day they say or do something that tells you they have, and you wonder why you hadn't noticed before.

This September my younger sister left for college. Casting aside her high school ring and old group of small town friends, she turned her attentions to decorating a dorm room with posters and plants.

Any idyllic notions she harbored about college life would be swept away during her first weeks on campus. It's not like the movies, or even like the college catalogs. In my four years at college, I never had a professor who looked like a professor: white hair, glasses, crumpled suit.

Somewhere there's a picture-perfect campus with ''real'' professors, the quadrangle covered with crisp, blowing leaves, the tweed-jacketed students walking to an afternoon football game. Somewhere, but not here. Her college doesn't even have a football team, let alone great marble or granite buildings with ivy climbing up the sides.

But the buildings didn't matter. My sister hid any apprehension she may have felt and seemed excited by the prospect of going away to school, one of those teen-age girls enthusiastic about anything new or different. Her zeal peaked when she shopped for an entirely new fall wardrobe which going off to college justified.

''Gee, Dad,'' she said, ''if I'll be living away I'll need some money to buy new clothes. You want me to look nice, don't you?''

And by invoking those few words, she proved again the truth of the French proverb ''A father is a banker provided by nature.''

When the day arrived for her to register we packed the car with sister's things, and the family started that long trek to the New England college it was our tradition to attend. People come away from college with various results: Some acquire technical skills, some acquire partying technique. I knew that if my kid sister was lucky, one or maybe two professors during her college career might throw the door of her mind back on its hinges and inspire her to dedicate herself to some purpose she thought important.

We arrived at the school two hours later, in time to hear the college president's orientation comments to incoming freshmen. Rubbing his beard, repositioning his hands on the lectern, he peered out into the cherubic faces.

''Look at the person to your right and then at the person to your left,'' the president told the students. ''At commencement four years from now, one of those two students or you won't be among the graduating class. Not everyone who enrolls can achieve the academic excellence demanded by this institution.''

Finally, the welcoming words over, we got down to the nitty-gritty of moving my sister into her dorm. Parking as close to the front door as possible, each family member grabbed something to carry and we marched up the cramped stairway to the third-floor suite. Every family there seemed engaged in the same work.

Some of the college girls were renewing old friendships, while others wandered wide-eyed, trying to locate such essentials as the soda machine and games room.

The more senior girls were helpful with directions and cheerful one-liners about how we'd all be repeating this lift-and-carry marathon in nine months at the end of the school year. Cute girls.

I placed the last of the cardboard boxes filled with clothes and a teddy bear on my sister's dorm room floor, as already she was striking up a friendship with the girl who stayed in the next room, and the chatter of other incoming freshmen bounded up the hall.

I could have warned my little sister about the first-year distractions: the temptation to spend all day in the rathskeller, and stay up all night with friends, and skip classes scheduled at inconvenient times. I could have told her that the battle to be just herself was beginning all over again. But instead, I left the boxes in her room, said, ''Take care,'' then left.

It was her turn to find it all out.

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