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A Dad's Thoughts on Sending a Son Back to College in the Time of Covid

I spent this weekend moving No. 2 son back into his dorm at the school in the Midwest he's been away from since the Spring Break That Lasted All Summer. When you mention to people that your child is going back to campus, inevitably you get a certain reflex reaction. It's hard to describe. It's kind of a combination of an eyeroll mixed with their voice going up a register like "Well … I guess you can …" while they debate whether or how to tell you how much they disapprove. Like you just told them you're sending your kid off to live the next four months in an abandoned building that used to house an insane asylum and is now haunted. Or as one friend put it when I told him why I wouldn't be available to golf, "Sending him back to Covid College?" 

And I get the concern. I really do. And I share some of it. I'm not going to cite the statistics or argue that a 19-year-old is more likely to be harmed in a swimming pool or a wild boar attack or by having a vending machine fall on them. I won't say those things because I don't know if they're true. Nor will I claim we're not taking a chance here. For the same reason I won't mention a guy is pitching a No Hitter or say, "We managed to beat the traffic!"  Because I don't like to tempt fate. And saying coronavirus doesn't pose a threat would feel like taunting it. 

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So why send a beloved son back to college if there's risk involved? For a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is there is risk wherever you spend your late teens/early 20s. I'm under no illusion that Masschutopia is some virus-free paradise. Just the opposite. For all our shutdowns and mask requirements and strict over-regulation like rules that say you can't have a round of beers without someone ordering a sandwich because the Rona will avoid a grilled cheese or whatever, we are still among the league leaders in risk. Statistically speaking any of 47 other states would be a better destination. And I say this after venturing out of the state for three days to a place that is way more lax about this stuff than I'm used to. People walking around inside our hotel were running about 50/50 with the masks. And at lunch, Sandwich Artist B had his under his nose while Sandwich Artist A had hers hanging from her ear. As in, "I'll have the lettuce and tomato, the banana peppers, and extra heavy on the droplets, thanks." 

But mainly I'm sending him because he needs to be in that environment. Because he wants it so much. Because he deserves to have that college experience that I was denied because I couldn't afford to live away at school. To pursue his education, his friendships and the Catholic faith-based education that's so important to him. Like I told him, having him home so long has been a blessing for his mom and me. But ultimately it's like keeping a pet chimp. We can dress him up in human clothes, feed him, even teach him to ride roller skates and smoke cigars and keep him safe. But it goes against nature. He should be in the rainforest climbing trees with his chimp friends, attracting chimp females and learning to scare off rival chimps with thrown feces. 

And just as an aside, because I know what the perception is out there, neither the school nor the church is run by a collection of naive, anti-science, wafer-eating zealots out of the Middle Ages.  And despite what you think, it never was. A Catholic monk named Albert Magnus is the father of the Scientific Method, and he proved the world is round centuries before Columbus was born. Nicolaus Copernicus was an ordained Catholic canon who figured out the Earth orbits the sun. A priest name Roger Boscovitch originated atomic theory. Blase Pascal (mathematics), Louis Pasteur (inventor of pasteurization) and Alexander Fleming (inventor of penicillin) were all devout Catholics. And the originator of the Big Bang Theory was a priest named Georges Lemaitre. All of them were funded, at least in part, by the church. And don't Gallileo me, just because you know the Indigo Girls song. He wasn't threatened with death for his model of the solar system. It was for mocking the pope, who was in no mood to have his poping ridiculed by an astronomer. And his punishment was to be put under house arrest. With a servant, hired by the Vatican, who took care of him so he could continue his research for the rest of his life. The Catholic church didn't build world class universities, clinics and teaching hospitals around the globe without understanding how viruses spread. They're not a bunch of snake-handlers who think they can just pray a pandemic away.

That said, I recognize that sending a kid off to a campus filled with kids from around the country is a risk. But a life free of risks is not a life at all. Nor is it living to be worrying constantly about bad things happening. When my older son was in preschool, there was a mom who made a show of inspecting her daughter at the end of every day for signs of harm. To see if she'd been hurt, picked on, injured or abused. Right in front of the teachers. Even though her own sister was on staff. Years later, when both our kids were on the verge of middle school age, I asked how her daughter is doing. 

"Oh, she's much better," she said. 

Better?

"Yup. Her panic attacks are down to two or three a week instead of two or three a day." 

Cause. Effect.

The bottom line is I've done everything I know how to raise my sons to live their lives with caution, but not in panic. To be careful, not fearful. That it's OK to take calculated risks, just not stupid/reckless ones. Whether that's wearing a helmet when they ride a bike or driving with their phones in their pockets or tackling with their shoulder pads, not the crown of their helmets. When No. 1 son was around the same age, he was assigned to Okinawa and the 38th Parallel and the rest of us were following the news every night while a cat-stroking Bond villain was lobbing missiles into the Sea of Japan. That was hard to deal with and so is this. But you bring your kids up to early adulthood and hope they learn to be safe without sentencing them to a life sentence inside the walls of your house in the name of that safety. I trust that he and his friends won't be holding massive ragers like the one at UNC that every parent I know can't stop talking about. But that they'll get the education, the experience and the social life that is every bit as important to a college-aged person's life as antibodies. 

To everyone who's not my kid, use your head. And to all the other parents sending their kids off, put your trust in them, their schools and yourselves for making this call. I hope we're right, and I think we are. God bless.