My heart races as I eye the thick white envelope in our post office box. I hold my breath as I reach in and slowly pull it out. This is it. It’s real. I’m going off to college.
Back when I was a kid, college letters came in two formats – thin, narrow envelopes with a single sheet of rejection tucked inside, and thick envelopes that screamed, “Welcome!” as the glossy housing options and meal plan brochures came tumbling out. I’d had a few of the narrow kind but finally my day had come.
I dash back to the car and squeal across town, hastily parking outside my father’s office. I’m in such a hurry that I don’t even bother to check with his secretary. I dash around the corner, down the hall and throw open the door.
“IgotintocollegeI’mgoingtocollegeinCaliforniaIgotinIgotinSqueeeealll,” the words tumbling out of my mouth so quickly that spaces and punctuation can’t keep up.
I can see the exact moment that my father’s brain catches up with my enthusiasm. Not because he breaks into a huge smile. Oh no, his faces drains entirely of color and his eyes take on a look of absolute panic.
“You said I could go if I got in. I got in. I’m going. You said it. You can’t take it back now.”
“I know, but I just..I didn’t….”
“You didn’t think I’d get in, did you?”
He shakes his head, no words needed.
“You know what, Dad? I didn’t either. But I did. And now you have to pay for it.”
And he did. When I realized my dream of pursuing a degree in International Relations at a very exclusive liberal arts college in California, my mom and dad handed over every single penny he earned for two years to pay for it. In doing so, they taught me what it really means to support your children, especially when your child’s dream is your own personal nightmare.
That’s the funny thing about kids. Their youth and innocence prevents them from understanding all of the costs and implications associated with achieving their dreams. As parents, we have to strike that careful balance between encouraging them to work hard for their goals, but not telling them so much of the harsh reality that we completely discourage them.
My parents knew that balance well. “Do the research,” they said as they threw me out at the library. “Convince us that this college really is the best.” “Earn your place there. They don’t know us from Adam. If you want to go, you’re gonna have to get in on your own merits.”
My parents knew from the moment I pulled out the college guide that the tuition was going to stretch us thin. They could have called a halt to things, pulled reality down around my ears and sent me right back down the street to the local college. But they didn’t. They saw my dream, a real (and realistic) dream that was just barely beyond the limits of my fingertips. Instead of grabbing my ankles and holding me down, my father and mother gave me a whole bunch of little nudges, none so huge as to make a difference on their own. But when you put them all together, they were just enough to land me that thick envelope in our mailbox.
Even though paying a small fortune in tuition for my last two years of college was going to turn his hair white and give him nightmares, that day my dad said yes.
Now I’m a grown up with my own kids staring up at me. Their dreams are still as little as they are. They want to be like me, or like their dad, or stay home and play with babies. I know that this won’t always be the case. Someday those kids are going to come running in the door with their words tripping out of their mouths faster than they can speak. They are going to drop some bombshell of a dream made reality on my doorstep.
Even though it will give me my own set of nightmares and turn my blonde locks grey, I will say yes. I just hope that when I do, my kids will look up at me with the same love and admiration as I have for my parents. If they forget, that’s okay. I know that one day they’ll realize just how much the sacrifice cost me, and they’ll do the same thing for the next generation to come. Making dreams come true is what being a parent is all about.