Educational Transitions

“It’s interesting to leave a place, interesting even to think about it. Leaving reminds us of what we can part with and what we can’t, then offers us something new to look forward to, to dream about.” Richard Ford in Harper’s, 1992

The return to school is one of our most predictable fall transitions. Right around Labor Day each year, children of all ages are relinquishing summer freedoms for the more regimented schedules of earlier rising, more structured evenings, more formal attire, and generally, more intellectual pursuits. The beginning of another school year has become, in fact, a modern day end of summer ritual. Life transitions, whether they be pleasant and intentional, or traumatic and unexpected, are always a stress of sorts. This past weekend, we experienced an appropriate though bittersweet transition in our family as our oldest child moved into his freshman dormitory 1000 miles from home and began a new and exciting chapter in his life. While the events of the weekend are still fresh in my mind and heart, I want to consider educational transitions in this week’s Insight.

There are a host of appropriate separations in our educational process. Moms walk their tentative youngsters into the building for the first day of preschool. . .then hope that they can make it back to the car before either of them starts the tears. The first day of elementary school heralds another step, and by the time high school rolls around, many children are actually anxious to reunite with classmates and the familiar social structure. But when the time comes for a child to move from home for education, the whole character of this transition gains additional significance, because the family unit is altered in a fundamental way.

Whether a child leaves to marry, to attend school away from home, to pursue a distant career, or primarily to distance him or herself in an act of independence, such transitions affect family structure and ways family members relate to each other. These modern day rites of passage necessitate a balancing act; letting go physically while staying close emotionally. They evoke universally felt emotions which range from joy and excitement for opportunity to the poignant reminiscence that empty chairs and quiet bedrooms generate. Beginning is the next chapter in a young adult’s life. There are new challenges in self-awareness, new responsibilities, and new freedoms. For the parents and siblings who remain behind, there’s a bittersweet sense of restructuring. . .less laundering chores, fewer phone calls, and diminished grocery bills.

Life at college provides opportunity for education on a grand scale. In addition to the intellectual climate which is fostered by living in an academic community, college students learn major life lessons in independence. Often, young adults are exposed to greater diversity in classmates’ beliefs, states (even countries) of origin, and value systems. Aristotle proposed, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” As parents, we hope that our children will continue to assess the world from a perspective of established values, and to use both integrity and kindness in interacting with their new college families. I like the concept of perspective which Robert Penn Warren provides in this excerpt from Synonyms

There are many things in the world, and I have seen some.
Some things in the world are beautiful, and I
Have seen some. But more things are to come,
And in the world’s tangled variety,
It is hard sometimes to remember that beauty is one word for reality.
So, here I sit both joyous for my son’s opportunities in this important step in his life and sad that he’s not here. But, I will vicariously participate in his educational adventures. I will try to be mindful of the beauty in this reality of family transition. Simultaneously, I’m thankful to be living in an era when technological advances have made communication so readily accessible. Moreover, I’m pleased that Southwest Airlines has made his Trinity College home in Hartford, CT just a two-hour, nonstop flight away!

A move from home to college is a major step in one’s general maturation. The separation from family is appropriate, however bittersweet, since it provides broad opportunity for young adults to become well-educated and productive citizens. As parents, we wish for great achievements and happiness in our progeny. So, in this transition, we’re hopeful that our student-children take advantage of the chance to become wiser, more discriminating human beings. Robert Maynard Hutchins mused, “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.” And, I agree with Walt Whitman whose poem I’ll use in closing, that our hopes and expectations are high for the next generation. If we educate our children conscientiously, they’ll be better prepared to serve not only their best interests, but ours as well.

Poets to Come
Poets to come! Orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face.
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.


Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
September 2001