"I have it under control" must be the most terrifying five-word phrase in the English language. If you are the parent of a high school senior who hasn't yet filled out college applications, it translates to two words: Be afraid. OK, three words: Be very afraid.
Recently, I met the only other mother in our school district whose kids are not perfect. On the last possible exam date, at the last possible moment, her son arose, as if from the dead, to take his college entrance exam.
But now he doesn't know whether he wants to go to college. He'd rather spend a year honing his musical talents before launching into the lucrative world of show business. I think my son has similar plans, but I'm not sure – I just know that he has it under control.
One weekend, I asked my son to set a goal for his applications – something he could reasonably achieve over the next two days. He allowed as how that might be a good idea, and that, in fact, he already had such a goal. Elated, I asked what that might be. "I want to make some progress," he said. "Don't worry. I have it under control."
Last I heard, he was seriously considering a state college in the Rocky Mountains. He doesn't know a lot about it, but he's heard that there is good fishing nearby. I'm glad for that – send a kid to college, and you lose your life savings. But teach a kid to fish, and you feed him for life.
The other families in our school sure seem to have it under control. They can tell you the early admission deadlines for each of the nine colleges that are recruiting their pre-med, football-playing, National Merit Scholar, science fair-winning kids. And they will recite these details while you are trapped next to them in a bus seat on a field trip that is a glimpse into eternity.
I feel as if I have lost control, but truth be told, I never had it to begin with. And my son knows it. Win, lose, or draw, this is his hand, and he's going to play it his way. Which, aside from the part about intellectual inquiry and vocational training, is pretty much what college is all about.
Raising children is like catch and release on a human scale. You try not to harm them while they are under your care, because they need to survive once you set them free. You have to take the hook out gently; meanwhile, they flop around a lot.
My son is nearly a foot taller than I am and has grown a beard. This fall, he voted for the first time. Except for car insurance, health insurance, tuition, books, room, and board, he's ready to take charge of his own life. He's got it under control, and it's time for me to back off. I don't have much choice. Even though it's my tuition bill, it's his life, as he occasionally reminds me.
I just hope he likes fish.
• Gena Caponi-Tabery, the former director of American Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, writes about history and culture.