I’m behind on writing this post. Truth be told, I’ve had significant writer’s block regarding this particular story.
Or perhaps it’s something more. Something that tugs at a mother’s heart strings. Because our oldest graduated college. And the finality hits hard as the rest of her life awaits.
When we dropped Greta at Notre Dame four years ago, I didn’t experience much sadness. For a very specific reason. Greta took a gap year between high school and college. While on a NSLI-Y scholarship, she lived in Taiwan for 10 months with an amazing host family. She studied Chinese at Wenzao University and had the experience of a life time.
By the time she went to college in the US, it felt like a luxury to have her close to home. Up to that point, our communication with her was sparse. Google Hangouts. A weekly Skype call at best. Dropping her at a university 2 hours from home felt a little like letting her walk into town for an ice cream cone.
But I digress. Back to graduation.
Commencement itself was a wonderful event. Greta graduated with majors in Computer Science and Chinese. There were ceremonies in both programs. I watched tiny Asian women eat mounds of sushi with cascading flows of wasabi. It was impressive. I watched Johnny sneak fistfuls of cookies while darting underneath tablecloths. It was opportunistic.
We captured this lovely moment with all four grandparents.
There was plenty of silliness.
My nephew joined us for the Baccalaureate Mass. Connor helped corral Johnny during the solemn event. Note the masterful use of the bear hug technique.
The final ceremony was the University graduation in the football stadium.
At the end of the ceremony, Greta took Becky and they walked out together. Becky enjoyed sucking on the orange tassel.
We gathered for a few final pictures, trying to herd the kids into one shot.
My sister threw a final party with many lovely touches. Including fried chicken, board games, and a piñata. Everyone had a blast. Greta said that is was exactly how she wanted to celebrate.
So, how to put into perspective all that I feel as a parent? What is the takeaway from my daughter’s graduation? I think I’ve figured that out. For me, it has less to do with what she has achieved and more about who she has become.
During the weekend, Greta received multiple awards in her chosen fields of study. Of course, it made me proud. You always sit a little taller when your child’s name is called. People catch your eye and there is an implicit assumption that you did something as a parent to make it possible, other than survive. Some people may even think we have mastered the secret sauce for parenting success.
Well, I have. At least two of the ingredients.
Flash cards. It starts with flash cards.
My contribution to Greta’s academic success was profound. And her third grade year was crucial to her future success. Because I drilled her in math flashcards while making dinner each night. I remember stirring pasta sauce, barking at telemarketers selling me extended car warranties, and shaking off a baby climbing my leg. All while flipping addition and subtraction facts.
Yes, I’m that good.
I did this for one specific reason: Mrs. Rooney told me to. Greta’s third grade teacher firmly believed in flash cards. The rote memorization of math facts was important but the daily discipline was probably the more significant outcome. A teacher like Mrs. Rooney laid the foundation for all kinds of good things in the future. All I had to do was set the timer and flip the cards.
The second ingredient has nothing to do with academic success. It’s about life pursuits. Somewhere along the way, in the haze of sleepless nights and failed parenting experiments, I realized what my role as a mother was truly all about: Help the kids find their passion in life and support their efforts to pursue it. Which takes some trial and error. And sometimes means piles of undone laundry, trips through the drive-thru, and a messy house. We also needed the help of many teachers, coaches, and 4H leaders
Over the years, Greta tried on a variety of things for size.
Disastrous dance classes which produced some favorite family videos.
Projects in rocketry and animal science. Biology was out. Engineering in.
4H Horse Bowl and Hippology. Greta did well but she’s scared of horses.
FIRST Robotics. Which gave her lifelong friends and a pile of t-shirts for a quilt.
While she tried many things, she eventually found her passion. And it’s the Chinese language. Which makes me wonder if we picked up the right baby from the hospital back in 1999.
A couple years ago, Greta called me late one night. She was stressed, a pile of projects and papers demanding a long weekend of work. But there was excitement in her voice. Greta said, “Mom, I finally figured it out. I know what I want to study. I realized that I always make myself do the Computer Science homework first. And I save the Chinese for last. Because that’s my favorite. I think I am going to study Chinese in graduate school.”
So she decided to pursue graduate studies. In History. Um, okay? She tells us that this will prepare her to translate historical writings. I suppose someone needs to do it. But the road to a PhD program was rough. Greta applied to 9 graduate schools. And was rejected from 8 of them.
Harvard. Yale. Columbia: Not interested.
Princeton. Michigan. Penn: No room at the inn.
Berkeley and UChicago: Thank you for trying.
At first she was a bit offended. Then there was sadness. Finally, desperation. What if she didn’t get an offer from any graduate program? What about her dream? What about this passion to learn Chinese and translate esoteric works into English? There were many tearful phone calls over the past several months.
Finally, a singular success. Boston University invited her to join their program. She held her head high and stomached all the rejections, aided by some sage advice. My sister gave her this key perspective: You can only enroll in one school so what does it really matter? The dream is still intact. Just in a different geographical setting.
Greta handled the whole situation with grace. I’m biased but I think BU made a fantastic decision to admit her. She’s passionate about her chosen field of study. That drive will help sustain her as she climbs Mount PhD. Plus, she’s got those math facts down cold.
Up next? Greta leaves this week to take a summer position in Taiwan as the Resident Director for the same program that she studied under as a student. She will be in charge of 40 American high school students who are traveling to study Chinese at Wenzao University.
She will be their translator. Their warden. Their Mary Poppins. Her first assignment is to keep them in a strict Covid lockdown, isolated in hotel rooms, for 7 days.
There’s a strong chance Becky and Johnny are coming in off the bench for some Zoom entertainment.
Sam and I dropped Greta at the airport last night. There was a long hug and a bit of ugly crying. I snapped one last picture.
As she walked away, a quote from a great philosopher came to mind:“I always get to where I am going by walking away from where I have been.”
Winnie-the-Pooh always knows exactly what to say.