I thought I was becoming an accomplished American. If I don't open my mouth and let the Glaswegian out, I can project a reasonable facsimile of a suburban American dad. But every so often, I'm reminded that if you don't grow up here, you miss vital cultural conditioning that ultimately outs you as an immigrant imposter.
You don't recognise it until there's a Brady Bunch reference that goes right over your head, or maybe a high school joke that everyone laughs at except you, then suddenly you're back to being a stranger in a strange land. I've just experienced one of those dislocations; and it was a lot worse than not getting the joke. It was the American parental rite of passage of depositing my oldest child at university nearly 400 miles away to start her new life as a college freshman.
On the morning of 29 August, we were part of a convoy of close to 500 cars snaking around the beautiful faux-colonial campus of Colby College in Waterville Maine. Some cars had just a parent and child, while ours had the whole family. What was universal was that each car was stuffed to the gunnels with a curated selection of 18 years' worth of stuff. After weeks of shoe and apparel triage, my daughter's life was packed into the back of our Volvo estate like a three-dimensional game of Tetris.
Each car was directed to the front of the designated dorm to be met by crowds of older students decked out in 'Welcome to Colby' t-shirts. Dancing to loud music under a beautiful sunny sky, they unpacked the car in a matter of minutes and schlepped the various boxes to her room. A purposeful and upbeat welcome, but also excellent traffic management.
It was then time to deal with another cornerstone of American college life; the freshman roommate. Regardless of how rich the college is or how privileged the new students are, in the vast majority of American universities, each freshman gets to share a few hundred square feet with a perfect stranger for their first year. Our daughter's roommate and her mother were already hard at work when we arrived, transforming the institutional symmetry of the bare dorm room into a modicum of personal space. For our daughter, this alchemy was planned well in advance, with the bed, desk, chair, and wardrobe serving as a blank canvas for desk organisers, family pictures, strings of lights, and fluffy pillows. Within minutes, the basic wooden frame and plastic mattress (that can obviously be hosed down in extremis), was transformed into an inviting single bed straight out of a Laura Ashley catalogue.
For freshman, there's also no such thing as en-suite facilities. In my daughter's case, it's seven people to one shower and toilet, both of which are inconveniently located in the same room, maximising the chance of congested ablutions. At least in Maine, the late summer weather is kind. At many southern universities, the freshmen also suffer in rooms with no air conditioning, making the shared shower even more of a hygiene challenge.
To be clear, there's no economic rationale for this. Colby College and many of the other elite universities in the US are perfectly capable of providing en-suite single rooms with AC if they chose. Instead, it's all part of the indoctrination into a different phase of life. Like Spartan boys being enrolled in the Agoge at age seven, or Marine Corp recruits arriving at basic training, it's about erasing what came before and acclimatising the freshmen to a new regime.
But it wasn't the privations of the accommodation or the forced communal living that was shocking to me. Instead, it was the bright shining line between home and away. It was only as move day approached that I realised my Scottish upbringing hadn't prepared me for the wrenching cruelty of the American process.
When I went to Glasgow University in the mid-1980s, and even now as we watch our Scottish friends' kids start college, there's far more of a gradual decoupling. I'm not sure what the percentage was in the 1980s, but currently nearly 45% of Glasgow University's Scottish undergraduate students live at home. Of the 55% who don't live at home, the majority live less than 100 miles from their parents, making it relatively easy to pop home for a birthday, a shoulder to cry on, or just a home-cooked meal and the chance to have your mum properly separate the whites from the colours.
The contrast with the US is stark. Not a single kid in our daughter's friend group is going to a college within a three-hour drive of home, and for elite colleges like Harvard, the average distance travelled for freshmen is over 1,000 miles, making popping home all but impossible during term time.
My unpreparedness was clearly amplified by the fact that I stayed at home all four years when I attended Glasgow, and didn't leave the nest until I was 21. Not only did I sleep in my own bed on my first day at university, I also transitioned to Glasgow with a bunch of high school friends, ensuring a continuity of social life as well as domestic arrangements. I remained a Boys Brigade officer, I still played basketball with the local team, and I even stayed friends with the unfortunates who had chosen to go to Strathclyde or Paisley Tech.
Over the course of four years, friends did peel off and I made new ones. By third and fourth year, I was spending less time at home and more time at my girlfriend's flat behind the Kelvin Hall. At least that was time well spent, as she's now my wife of 25 years. But it felt like evolution not revolution. A chance for both parents and child to get used to the idea of the transition from dependent to independent. A progression from almost no functioning pre-frontal cortex to some semblance of an adult. I also remember it as a period in which I grew up, experimented, and made plenty of mistakes in a safe and supportive environment. Even so, when I packed the car at 21 to leave to do a masters degree at Cambridge, it still wasn't easy.
So, despite having a theoretical understanding of the American college drop-off process, the reality and sense of discontinuity was far harder to deal with than I'd anticipated. It was a jarring sublimation in which a solid six-part family suddenly had a piece that became ethereal. From a parent's perspective, it's disrespectful to those who have gone through the trauma of losing a child to talk about it as a bereavement, but there's certainly a sense of loss and a period of mourning involved. I'm sure it'll get easier with time, but for the moment, it feels like we have a hole in our family.
But it's not just about helicopter parents clinging to their kids. I've watched the process that my daughter has gone through over the last six months and it's given me a far better understanding of why high school – and in particular senior year – plays such a central role in American literature and movies. In our town, which has one middle school and one high school, my daughter had a close group of friends who had been living in each other's houses for close to seven years.
On countless Friday nights, our basement would be joyously alive with the sound of gaggles of kids screaming at horror movies in the dark and playing endless rounds of 'Let's Dance' on the Wii. But since the turn of the year, there was a noticeable change. Yes, there was the excitement of graduation, but there was also a palpable 'end of an era' melancholia shaped by the knowledge that this tight group of friends was about to become a diaspora, with none of them going to the same college, and many of them separated by thousands of miles.
I also saw it in our family interactions. While mostly unspoken, because let's face it, we're still Scottish and public displays of emotion don't come easily, there was a casual intensity during my daughter's last few months at home. She didn't even need to be asked to spend time with her younger brothers. Despite the excitement about a new beginning, there was also the natural apprehension at the familiar coming to an end.
The clear bright line also helps explain the deep bond that many Americans have with their undergraduate college; which said colleges then assiduously exploit for fundraising. When they arrive on campus, freshmen are friendless and nervous. After carefully cultivating their persona in high school, they're back to being a tabula rasa
and have to work to re-establish who they are, and in many cases, try and reinvent themselves so as not to repeat the mistakes of school. The emotional intensity of these first few weeks must be a potent Proustian memory machine, and it's obviously a powerful shared experience for our American friends, but it's not that familiar to me having commuted to university from Renfrew.
I also turned 50 this summer, and I wasn't fussed about it. Instead, I found that it was driving away from Colby a few weeks ago that felt like the real milestone and inflexion point. My wife and I have spent the last 18 years building our family, click clacking up the incline of having four kids, moving across the Atlantic twice, and trying to be good parents. Even the last year still felt like part of the construction project; helping find the right college, cracking the whip around application process deadlines, and handling the emotional ups and downs of senior year. Then suddenly, rather than the familiar steady climb, it felt like we were over the top of the rollercoaster and picking up speed on the downslope. With the first piece moving off the board, it felt like we had entered a new phase of life; a time in which we will always be subtracting rather than adding.
So, I now feel a little more American, and a little less complacent about the time I have with my other three kids. Thankfully, it'll be another eight years before we drop the last of them off at college. By that time, I'll know the drill and be prepared, but I doubt it will make it any easier.