A Higher Education

When his son leaves for college, a dad takes time to reflect.

Just after my son graduated from White Station High School last spring, he and his buddies took a road trip to Pensacola Beach, Florida. By all accounts it was the classic American rite of passage full of sun and fun, laughs and new memories, and probably more than a little that his mother and I didn’t hear about.

With an eye toward safety, we let him take our minivan instead of the tiny Mazda Protege he’s driven from home to school and work since he was 16. The van allowed him to sit up higher with a better view of the action around him. It also allowed him to carry more friends so fewer vehicles were needed for the trip, though it may have done some permanent damage to this group’s “cool factor.”

While he was away, I drove his car to work and on errands. First, though, I gave it a thorough cleaning — I’ve become somewhat set in my ways as to just how uncluttered my ride should be. The cleanliness I demand now is far from the state my own vehicle was in when I was 18, but with age comes wisdom, and a bit of obsessiveness.

Anyway, Calvin had a mix-CD in his player and I decided to let it play out as I drove around. I was eight tracks in before I recognized a single song or artist. Up until that point, what I heard was a droning sameness that I’m sure many middle-aged ears pick up from the radio (or YouTube or Spotify or wherever it is kids find their music today).

The eighth track was “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones off their 1971 Sticky Fingers album. Not even a hit like “Brown Sugar” or “Dead Flowers,” it’s a deep cut from the band’s golden years with Mick Taylor on guitar, recorded just down the road in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (and with the great Jim Dickinson in the room). Did Calvin know any of this? Probably not, but the fact that he appreciates the music had me thinking, “Did I do this?”

Did I raise this child into a young man who appreciates the things that might take a little more effort to find? Am I part of making the next generation of music lover, art lover, and, maybe, a creator of something unique himself?

Of course, taste in music isn’t the sole yardstick we hold up to measure our success as parents. There are other things, important things — empathy, choices made, goals they’ve set for themselves, and work ethic, among others.

But still — “Moonlight Mile”? That was a pleasant surprise.

Just a couple of weeks ago I told him goodbye and sent him off to the University of Oklahoma. I’m thrilled for Calvin and the new challenges he’ll face; it’s the most exciting time in his life. But I can’t help wondering if I’ve done everything I was supposed to do as a father. I helped him with homework and shared my scant knowledge of how a car works. I had “the talk” with him and introduced him to the Marx Brothers (though not on the same day). In conversations around the family dinner table we discussed books, movies, history, and life. And I hope that, through the way my wife and I are raising him and his siblings, and through the way we treat each other, that he’s learned to respect those around him. They’re life lessons, and there is no diploma or GPA for that.

Raising children is a hell of a thing. It’s the single most important thing I’ve ever done. Have I done a good job with Calvin? Time will tell. I have every confidence he’s ready for this next stage in life and maybe, just like with his music choices, I had something to do with it.

Today he’s in Norman, Oklahoma, 480 miles away. That’s about how far he drove to get to the beach with his buddies. But back then he came home a week later, loaded down with stories and exhaustion and dirty laundry. This is more permanent. Semi-permanent, anyway. We don’t expect him to check in when he’s out or to stumble from his room at noon searching for something to eat. He won’t be expected to mow the lawn, pick his shoes up from the dining room floor (after the second or third pleading), or drive his brother to school.

Fall is a time of change. The air cools, the leaves turn, the time goes backwards. Parenting is a constant state of evolution and I’ve experienced so much over 18 years with four children. Much of it has become old-hat, but with this major milestone the memories come rushing back. Calvin may not be expected to mow the lawn, but neither will he be expected to laugh at the funny faces I make or to be there when I return home from work, and he won’t be expected to crawl up into my lap for comfort. Those days are gone.

He’s in another state now, sleeping under strange, strange skies, just about a moonlight mile on down the road.

This column originally appeared in Memphis magazine, September 2016.