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Advice to a son preparing to leave home for college

August 27, 1998

Bob MaginnisAs this is being written, my oldest son is two days away from leaving home for his freshman year of college. My wife suggested that I write him a letter before he leaves. As parents, we're hardly ever sure that what we say to our children is the right thing, but here goes.

To my son:

It seems too soon for this to be happening. If it were really time for you to be going to college, would I still remember the day you were born so clearly? Arriving a month late, you nearly rolled yourself off the warming table and the pediatrician carried you around the maternity ward, showing his colleagues what a large child you were.

When I took your brother shopping for back-to-school clothes this week, the dressing room was located next to the children's department and I looked at the tiny garments, with snap-open legs for easy access to funky diapers, and wondered where the time had gone.

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Some of those days I remember - helping to bathe you, taking you and your brother to the town parks when your mother was working nights and those long sessions at the Little League park when the last out seemed as unobtainable as the Holy Grail. We read the same books over and over together, and when you were older, I listened to you grumble about gathering kindling and logs for the wood stove.

But enough memories for now. Like my own father, I tell the same stories too often.

You have a great chance, a chance that you earned through your hard work and determination, to get an education that will allow you to be secure for the rest of your life. I know what you're going to say - money isn't everything. I agree; you can waste your life lusting after money. But you do want enough so that you're not at the mercy of some landlord who's more likely to sprout wings than make a serious effort at building maintenance.

On the way to the career you want, you will have to do a number of things you don't want to do. To get to the point where I could write columns like this one, I had to go through other stages. As a young reporter, I rewrote press releases and later, as an editor, I laid out special advertising sections where the only writing to be done consisted of headline gems like "Baking soda freshens the fridge."

My message is: Don't sneer at honest work, just because it's not what you really want to be doing at the moment. But neither should you be content to do the drudge work forever, because some bosses will be glad to let you do just that. The time to do free or reduced-pay work is when you're young. And you should be doing those sorts of internships for what you can learn and the contacts you can make, not for the pay.

During the next four years, and probably beyond, you'll have to economize a great deal. When I went through junior college, I worked at the language lab, handing out tapes for students practicing their accents. Dinner was a cup of coffee, some buillion and a package of cheese crackers. Later when I went to work at a restaurant, I made friends with the cook, who made me an extra entree so I could eat before we closed up.

This enforced poverty ought not to be a distraction if you remember what you're there for - to learn. I wasn't eating so well in those days, but I learned how to develop film, write a news story and that tear gas does more than make you cry if you don't wear a protective mask. If you work on worthwhile projects, and carry your share of the load, you'll make friends who'll last a lifetime.

There will be distractions in college. In my day it was the politics surrounding the Vietnam War. Some got caught up in it to the point where they stopped going to class and became full-time protestors. You may be tempted by some cause, or even by some person, to do that, and it will be up to you to decide what's best.

Before you interrupt your education, however, realize that it's very easy to kid yourself about how easy it will be to get back to it later. It's tough enough to get the dishes washed when you're trying to keep one eye on a boisterous 2-year-old, let alone study for an exam.

Finally, your mother worries about you a great deal. Even though you're only going to be an hour away, for her this departure will be like watching you leave for the Bosnian front. Write her often, and if you decide to take up some fool pursuit like bungee jumping, don't include that in your letters.

We'll miss you, but on the advice of the counselors we met during your spring planning conference, we don't want to see you for at least a month. That first month, they told us, is when campus clubs show you their stuff and groups of students begin to make friends. We'll miss you, but we worry more about what you'll miss if you come home every weekend. So we love you and we'll see you in October.

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