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When Pandemic Life Gives You Lemons, You Take ThemShari Bender
I’ll never forget the day my parents dropped me off at Binghamton University in upstate New York. It was 1979, a warm sunny afternoon in late August. After we lugged my bags from our Chevy Malibu up a grassy hill to the dormitory and met my roommate, my mother broke down in tears. “My little boy’s leaving home!”
Honestly, the only dry eyes in my family were mine. I couldn’t wait to start my college life. New friends! Freedom! As my parents climbed back into the Chevy, gloomily heading back to Long Island, I ran inside to unpack and chat up my new roomie. I’d already moved on.
But revenge is sweet, they say, and now the shoe is squarely on the other foot. This August, four decades later, my wife and I will be the ones leaving Binghamton, minus our teenager and a few hundred pounds of luggage, to return to an emptier house three hours away.
My daughter has enrolled in my alma mater. And my memories of Binghamton will never be the same.
I’m still processing it. Sepia-toned recollections of college stored in a cozy corner of my brain (Frisbees flying across the grassy Peace Quad, raucous student protests against the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, Bruce Springsteen's “Born to Run” blaring down the dorm corridors) have been drifting up like flotsam from a 40-year-old shipwreck. Later this summer they’ll collide with the reality of my daughter walking the same hallways, inhabiting lecture halls I dozed off in, cramming for midterms in the library where I pulled all-nighters, and letting loose at parties I really hope aren’t as crazy as the ones I went to.
Mostly, there’s the dread of separating from our only child. The feeling is already creeping up on us. Last year, I lost my job as Sophie’s personal chauffeur when she began driving to and from her high school in Albany. This fall we’ll probably be lucky if she takes a bus home from Binghamton once a month to do laundry.
When Binghamton’s “Dear Sophie” email arrived in January, I couldn’t be prouder that she’d been accepted by New York State’s most selective public university, said to be the Ivy League of the SUNYs and more selective even than when I went.
“I’m only going there to find my potential husband,” Sophie joked, having suffered through an all-girls Catholic school since ninth grade. I suggested she bring her pet canary as a therapy bird to sing her through the stress of school and studying. An apt metaphor, she countered, pointing to herself, since this bird is leaving the nest.
Lately, though, the playful banter has been wearing thin, the day of reckoning growing nearer.
For years, I’ve reminisced about SUNY Binghamton as the place where my journalism career took off, where we blasted The Doors and Jackson Browne out the windows of our dorm rooms, and The Clash and Good Rats played live to sold-out audiences in the gymnasium. I cut my reporter teeth at the campus newspaper, Pipe Dream, banging out articles on actual typewriters in a pall of cigarette smoke from my fellow reporters. The drinking age was 18, pitchers of Matts cost $2 at the campus pub, “steal-a-meal” involved sneaking into the dining hall because you forgot your meal plan card in the room, and our primary electronics were LP turntables and the TVs in the Campus Union where we huddled in the afternoon to enjoy episodes of General Hospital or to boo President Reagan’s doom-and-gloom speeches about containing the communist threat.
There was the awful time my high school sweetheart broke up with me over the phone one evening during my freshman year. My roommates comforted me. Then I comforted myself by lacing up my running shoes and going for a run at 10 p.m. in the nature preserve behind my dormitory, shouting curses into the darkness.
Then I found a new girlfriend.
One memory is particularly vivid: the mural painted on a wall of my freshman dorm — a jagged strip of rainbow colors inspired by the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon which had debuted five years earlier and was part of pretty much every Binghamton student’s album collection.
Of course, the school has changed a lot. The brick residential complex of Newing College where I lived my first two years was demolished, along with the Pink Floyd-esque mural, to make way for new housing. The campus pub closed a decade ago. The Pipe Dream office moved into smaller quarters in another building. The number of undergraduates has increased by several thousand. The price of tuition, room and board has tripled to about $26,000 (still about one-third the cost of private college). The school’s athletic teams used to be the Colonials and the mascot was a chicken — now they’re the Binghamton Bearcats, with a ferocious green beast for a mascot. And speaking of re-branding, SUNY Binghamton has become Binghamton University.
Then there’s social media. My daughter has connected already with future classmates via Instagram and Facebook. When I went, everyone was new to me. I started from scratch the day my parents dropped me off. Now kids have the jump on things.
But one thing won’t change. Come late August, we’ll carry Sophie’s bags and boxes from our car to her dorm room, meet her roomie, and exchange small talk with other anxious parents. I’ll question again whether she really needs five pairs each of boots and heels given that the jail-cell sized room lacks a walk-in closet (and she’ll ignore me).
Too soon, it will be time to say goodbye. Our little girl is leaving home! Correction: she’s left. Cue the final teary hugs. My wife and I push our car’s start button and the motor purrs, ironically signifying that something has ended.
Maybe for comfort, I’ll think of that Pink Floyd mural in my dorm as a metaphor for Sophie's new life: a prism refracting light into color, much as the university refracts the potential of its entering students into a beautiful spectrum of educated humanity. Or something like that.
And I’ll wish her all the luck in the world. She’ll need it. Me too.
Top photo: Staff of the SUNY Binghamton student newspaper, Pipe Dream, which the author edited, circa 1983.