When two generations stand at the schoolhouse door

My daughter inhabits a college world that didn't exist when I went. I realized this moments ago. I had finished instant-messaging Hilary, who is two weeks into her sophomore year. Then I "went" to Amazon.com to buy and send her a couple of books for her writing class. On the way "back" to instant messaging, I visited a newspaper website and e-mailed an article I thought she might enjoy.

By the time I was finished, her instant-message reply icon was bouncing on my desktop computer - all in the twinkling of an eye.

When I went to college, my only desktop was made of wood, an instant message was a paper note on the door, electronic mail didn't exist, and Amazon was, first and foremost, a South American river. My word processor was a tiny portable Olivetti typewriter. Cutting and pasting text involved scissors and glue.

The only thing that hasn't changed is the arrangement of the alphabet on the keyboard.

When my parents delivered me to my dorm, I hauled my favorite record albums in milk crates. My monster speakers and hi-fi components the size of an air conditioner took up more space in the station wagon than my clothes.

Hilary's favorite music? She has more tunes in the iPod in her pocket than were in all of my milk crates combined.

Digital has come to mean hi-fi - and so much more - while station wagons have morphed into SUVs.

I thought back to the day I dropped Hilary off at the school door for kindergarten. I couldn't have predicted how different some aspects of school would be by the time she reached eighth grade - let alone the even bigger changes that would occur by the time she started college.

I did intuit that her schools couldn't possibly prepare her for all the career possibilities. When she started kindergarten, certain careers hadn't even been invented yet, while others would later disappear altogether.

Of course, the greater educational mission was not to teach her what to think, but how to think.

When I shared those first-day feelings with a friend, he sent me Howard Nemerov's poem "September, the First Day of School."

Nemerov holds his tearful son's hand at the first-grade door. He's a parent fighting his own tears of familiarity with the departure and the endeavor - first as a son and now as a father to a son.

A new generation embarks on the path of knowledge and experience while an older generation's heart skips a beat.

Nemerov writes:

A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare's Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler's Law,
As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,
The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be.
(From "The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov," University of Chicago Press, 1977)

The poet understood the meaning of the great ritual confronting me: the delicate terror, trust, and continuity of letting go; of delegating parenting, learning, and kindness to others - and most important, to the child herself.

This instant poetic message has taken me my whole life - and many generations of our family life - to receive by word, gesture, and now e-mail.

I'm here at the schoolhouse door once more, both dropping off and waiting for the child I've entrusted to fine teachers.

I am also waiting for myself. It feels like a renewal of my own quest for the freedom to grind the grain of integers and alphabet into new equations and sonnets - every day being a schoolhouse door.

I cannot begin to envision the medium Hilary will use to connect with her own child when she becomes the parent at the schoolhouse door.

But I trust the messages we have shared will endure.

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