I remember the afternoon my parents dropped me off at college in Northfield. It was August 1985, and as a freshman, I’d arrived a week before classes for orientation and several rounds of embarrassing trust-building games.
I didn’t have much: a few gigantic sweaters from the Limited, a pair of high-waisted jeans, and some white stirrup-sweatpants. I’d brought my turntable and tape player. I had a desk lamp and an alarm clock, a poster of Greg Louganis, a laundry bag and towel with my initials embroidered on them, and an electric typewriter. My hair was big and so were my fears of being away from home, even though home was just 45 minutes away.
My parents helped carry the load up, then they hugged me and cheerfully took off in the family station wagon. I remember standing in the grass for a while after they’d driven off, a little bird who’d fallen out of the nest, confused and shaken.
My new roommate had written that summer to introduce herself and to let me know that she’d be bringing a mini-fridge and a small, black-and-white television set. She did not account in her letter for the gigantic fur coat that she’d draped over our one reading chair, which looked like a hulking dead bear in the middle of the room.
We had two twin beds in our room, along with a phone, which was kind of a novelty. (On my brother’s campus, his entire floor shared one phone.) There were no answering machines. We generally left the doors to our rooms open, and if your phone was ringing, and the door was open, someone would answer it and write out a message on the dry-erase board on your door.
I never used a computer until my senior year in college, when an English professor forced us to do multiple drafts of our papers on the newfangled computers in the college lab. There were about 10 or 15 computers on campus, their screens with the C/: prompt humming in the basement of the library. You hovered until one was available, and I always waited until about midnight, when the wait wasn’t nearly as long.
That first year in college, I don’t remember talking to my parents much on the phone. My mom sent me a few postcards, as if she were on vacation from parenting. When I griped that everyone else was getting care packages, she finally caved and baked some brownies.
I thought of all of this recently, when I got an all-campus e-mail from the university where I teach, asking for “volunteer haulers” to help new students on Move-In Day. What sort of baggage would they be bringing with them, I wondered?
My students, as far as I can tell from their conversation and papers, have cable in their rooms, flat-screen televisions, Xboxes, laptops, printers, refrigerators filled with Monster soda, and microwaves piled high with Ramen noodle packets. From the intense interest they show the floor between their feet during class, I know that they all have cell phones, on which they attempt to covertly make lunch plans and look up Korean pop videos during my lectures. When I once asked a student to stop texting and put her phone away, she chirped, “But it’s my mom!”
They are always connected, even when they’re alone. They can access all of the library’s periodicals without leaving their dorm rooms, although they prefer Google as a primary resource, and seem to spend more time playing World of Warcraft than reading journal articles.
I wondered briefly if they, with access to so much technology and social media, are missing out on something. But what would that be? The frantic, dorm-wide search for Leigh from Des Moines when her mother calls?
It prompted me to call my own 76-year-old mother. “Do you remember the day that you dropped me off at St. Olaf my freshman year?”
“Not really,” she said.
“You seemed ecstatic,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “You have to remember that I dropped people off in various places for years. That day probably wasn’t so different. I still loved you,” she said.
Then it struck me: we can only miss what we know, what’s been familiar.
“I knew that,” I said. “I knew you loved me.”
“And I still do,” she added.
Shannon Olson is a regular contributor to Minnesota Monthly.