I take my students home with me every summer. Each of my high school jun-iors meets with me in May and tells me about their lives, their wonders, their doubts (if I'm lucky), and what they would like to do next.
After school is out in June, they go off to the camps and community service projects that transform them into seniors, while their stories come home with me and transform into the letters of recommendation I'll prepare for each of them when they apply for college in the fall.
When it comes to letters of recommendation, the process has its own timetable. Backing out of the driveway to get to summer school, I remember a comment a student made about what he liked about high school, and I now know exactly what to say to Warren Wilson College. I'm rinsing the dishes after dinner, and a student's interest in Vanderbilt finally becomes clear; I haven't touched a computer, but her letter is now finished.
It came as no surprise when another round of evening dishes gave me the phrase I would use to build my son's college letter. I am the only counselor in our small school, so I couldn't implement the advice of my colleagues who faced the same challenge of counseling their own child – "Don't."
Years of letter writing had given me a structure I knew well, and if paternal pride broke through the rails, admissions officers would be aided by my answer to the question, "How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?" since my response was "Two years as his college counselor, and all of his life as his father."
Using the same approach and well-worn ground rules, I produced about two dozen letters in September before I broached the letter for my son. Just like the 24 before it, the sailing was smooth: "He began his career as a science educator at age 5," and off it went from there.
As was the case with every letter before it, I printed it out, signed it, and checked for flow and for grammatical errors the computer wouldn't recognize… and then I immediately burst into tears.
Like most counselors, I have more than one job (the current count is three), and while I am speechlessly grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the lives of so many students and provide for my family, there are days of doubt.
An after-school meeting and a late class will bring me home to a sleeping house. Combine that with my kids' busy schedules and too many five-word conversations ("How was your day?" "Good.") and it's easy to wonder if Dad really knows the family he's feeding, the family whose members will too soon lead their lives under more than one roof, in more than one city.
There were small affirmations that I knew what I was doing. The souvenir T-shirts I bought my son at conferences were actually worn in public, and my polling numbers surely went up when I brought home Chinese food with the right amount of the flame-throwing spice he loves. But facing the prospect of my son growing up and out, I thought I probably could have done better, if only I had paid more attention.
Reading the letter of recommendation I'd written for my son, I realized I was wrong. The Dad side of me may have been working all over the county to afford a supreme pizza once a week, but the college counselor side had been quietly watching all along, making note of his life, reveling in his triumphs.
The two sides met for the first time in my office, when the letter proclaimed my son's successes and articulated his challenges with the clarity of the letters for every other student. The difference was not in the writing; it was in the audience.
He has been at college for a month, and while the phone calls seem brief and infrequent (at least to me), they are more than enough to fuel the great race of making ends meet, and making his dreams come true.
I am taking comfort in knowing that a world of possibilities awaits him, as he becomes the second generation in his family to go to college and discover a wealth of truths he had never seen before. He will learn these truths in college; his father has learned them from his son's college counselor.