[Note: This tale was from Fall 2008. Both daughters (the names have been changed to protect the author) have graduated and are now pursuing their passions.]
My wife and I have been student affairs professionals for many years, working in a variety of functional areas such as residence life, student activities, disability services and, currently, Director of Student Services. We have been counseling, advising and assisting undergraduate and graduate students for almost 30 years. So, when our daughters were ready to head off to college the two of us were well-prepared in fortifying them for their academic future. Armed with Chickering’s Seven Vectors of Student Development Theory, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Erikson’s Developmental Stages we prepped them for the transition to higher education.
Yet, as John Steinbeck wrote in Of Mice and Men, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Thus, the phone calls from our second daughter, a mere one day before the start of her first semester, set-up a chain of events I call “the teachable moment.”
September 2nd, 2:00 p.m. – My wife leaves me a slightly alarmed voice mail message that our daughter, Rachel, an incoming Freshman at a private university three hours from our home, is sick. Could I call her to soothe her drooping spirits.
Tuesday, September 2nd, 4:30 p.m. – Driving home from a hectic day at the campus, I finally have time to call our quietly suffering child who, I soon learn, has been nestled in her bed all day. As I pull away from my commuter campus, I plug in my hands-free device, hit her speed dial digit on my cell phone and cautiously await as the dial tone rings. “Hello,” a whimpering voice answers.
“Rachel,” I lovingly respond. “It’s dad. How are you?”
“Not good,” she sniffles. “My stomach hurts and I’m feeling nauseous.”
“Have you gone to the infirmary,” I patiently inquire.
“Yes, they said I’m dehydrated.” Relief spreads throughout my deanly body. “The nurse told me to drink more liquids and eat ice chips.”
“You haven’t been drinking much,” I rhetorically ask. “You need to take better care of yourself,” I gently admonish. “You’ll begin to feel much better once you have more liquids in your body. By tomorrow you should feel fine. Mom and I will call you later.” And with those final words of fatherly advice I hang up and continue maneuvering through rush hour traffic.
Tuesday, September 2nd, 6:30 p.m. – After dinner the home land line phone rings. My wife answers, knowing without checking the caller ID that Rachel is at the other end. They chat in a mother/daughter bonding kind of way. I head out the door to run some errands.
Tuesday, September 2nd, 8:00 p.m. – I momentarily stop back home just in time to watch the final game of Roger Federer’s five set, Round of 16 triumph in the U.S. Tennis Open. My wife, sitting on the couch, trying to finish the edits for her soon-to-be published book informs me in an exasperated and helpless tone that Rachel called again, this time saying she has a fever. We briefly confer on strategy, knowing there is not much we can do for now, and then I’m off to a friend’s house as we continue to work our way through Season 2 of “Lost.”
Tuesday, September 2nd, 8:15 p.m. – En route to my rendezvous with “Lost,” I phone our older daughter, Emma, a college junior, to update her on Rachel’s condition.
Tuesday, September 2nd, 10:30 p.m. – Returning home I am surprised to find my wife still awake. “Why are you still up,” I ask somewhat concerned and perplexed.
“Let’s just say its been a busy night,” she responded smiling. “I’ve had some interesting phone calls from both kids. Have a seat.” While I was grappling with the twists and turns of “Lost,” our oldest daughter called home stating that Rachel was not sick. “She went out drinking with some of her new friends, got drunk, and is too scared to tell you,” Emma announced. “She thinks you’ll pull her out of school. So, could you call her,” she pleaded. “I keep getting phone calls from her and I’m trying to study. She’s expecting your call.” Whoa! That changes the dynamics of recent events. Quickly my wife dialed Rachel’s cellphone.
“Rachel,” my wife gently chimed into the answered phone.
“Yes,” came the pouting reply.
“Did Emma tell you we would be calling about what really happened?”
“A huh. I’m sorry,” she confessed in a torrent of apologies. “I know I made a mistake, but I didn’t want to go home.”
“Rachel,” came the tenderhearted remark from my caring, but flummoxed, wife. “Why would you think we would bring you home? Yes, you didn’t use good judgement, and there could have been serious consequences, but your father and I trust you or we wouldn’t have let you go off to school. So tell me what happened.”
“Well,” our middle daughter began. “Some girls were mixing vodka with Crystal Light…” I broke into my wife’s narration and, smugly, stated a la Dr. Watson attempting to trump Sherlock Holmes that, elementary, the vodka cocktail was the culprit. Rachel, as far as we knew, never drank in high school and simply got intoxicated during her first real college party.
My wife let me finish my pontifications and replied, “it gets better. After the vodka cocktails Rachel had a few beers…” I interrupted her story, once more, and proclaimed but, of course! The classic novice drinker’s faux pas, mixing hard liquor with beer will always make one sick.
My wife paused, smiled and then incredulously responded, “it gets even better.
“So, I don’t think the vodka or beer made me sick,” intoned Rachel to my wife. “It must have been the cigars.”
“THE CIGARS,” I disbelievingly yipped. “She was smoking cigars?!” After the initial shock wore off we both chuckled. Talk about going overboard—and classes had not officially started. My wife, the consummate student affairs professional, didn’t let this perfect teachable moment pass by.
“Rachel,” she quietly said, “before you left for college dad and I talked to you about making good decisions. This, obviously, was not one of your better moments,”
“I know, I know,” she replied whimpering more loudly. “You must hate me.”
“Honey, we would never feel that way,” my wife quickly replied. “But you should never be afraid to communicate with us, whatever the circumstances. We trust you and love you, but you should never feel you aren’t able to confide in us. We cannot always be right there so you need to think twice when put in awkward circumstances.” More sniffling from the other end of the phone. “Rachel?”
A meek response chortled through the cell phone. Yeah?”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” came the timid reply. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Rachel, there are going to be times in the next four years where it might happen again. You just need to be in control of the situation as opposed to the situation controlling you. Okay?”
“Okay.” And with a quiet resolution, Rachel hung up.
“Well, well, well,” I sheepishly remarked. “Good story. Great job,” I applauded. You should be proud of the way you handled the situation, both as a mom and administrator.” I cautiously added, “Do you think she heard you?”
“I think so,” came the guarded reply. “Rachel, like so many other new students, just made a bad choice. Part of becoming more independent, establishing an identity, and developing her own value system is making mistakes, but then learning from them. I think she learned.”
“How many times do we hear these type of stories from colleagues?” I added. “Well, not exactly this story.” We both grinned. “In any case, here’s a positive outcome of today’s adventures.” I declared.
“What,” came the wary response.
“I now have my opening story for this week’s Parent Orientation program!”
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Podcast With Conor McLaughlin on SA Work-Life Balance