Note: This entry is adapted from a piece that first appeared on my old site in June 2009.
Some of you will find this entry too long. Skip it, then. Some of you, though, are in a place not unlike the one in which my husband and I, now find ourselves — that is, the edge of a yawning chasm of uncertainty; the place where our children are about to step off and we… well, we must wave goodbye, hoping we’ve done more right than wrong and averting our eyes so no one sees us cry.
If you’re in that place, perhaps you need to read this entry as much as I needed to write it.
By late 2003, many people knew that our son, J., was committed to the idea of a military career. I’ve told this story so many times before that perhaps you would appreciate hearing it from his perspective, instead. The following is excerpted from one of several essays he prepared for a summer program at one of the service academies a couple of springs ago:
Do many applicants point to September 11 as the defining moment in their call to serve their country? My commitment dates well before that. In fact, I can trace the precise path of my call to serve from my childhood interests in (all right, obsessions with) firefighting, police work, and the armed forces to my participation in the Young Eagles program sponsored by the Tuskegee Airmen. On September 8, 2001, when I flew out of the now defunct Meigs Field in Chicago, I was an eleven-year-old boy with dreams of service. When I returned half an hour later, I was a young man with plans (partially formed, colored with the excitement of flight, but plans, nevertheless) to pursue excellence through a career in service to my country.
The dark weeks that followed September 11 only cemented those plans, and in the intervening years, I have carefully considered each branch of our nation’s armed forces as I have pursued my somewhat unconventional but always rigorous education….
These “childhood interests in (all right, obsessions with)” military service had focused nearly exclusively on the Marine Corps by the end of 2003, which explains how Making the Corps (Thomas E. Ricks) and Keeping Faith (John Schaeffer and Frank Schaeffer) ended up on my nightstand. J., and later, my husband pressed the first book on me; I pressed the second on them. Told in the alternating voices of father and son, my recommendation narrates one young man’s experience on Parris Island. But what resonated with me — what stays with me still — is Frank Schaeffer’s voice. You see, throughout the text, the young recruit’s father remains somewhat perplexed about his son’s choice. Why, after all, would a smart kid with good college entrance exam results and a comfortable middle-class background choose to enlist after high school?
A good question. The short answer? Apparently, because that’s what he feels called to do.
While most people knew that J. wanted to serve, few knew how ardently he hoped to enlist in the Marines when he finished his high school studies.
Would you pause for a second to consider what his hopes and dreams might have meant to the parent-teacher who had given her son an education — hell, a life — full of films, good and great books, conversation, Shakespeare, science fiction, astronomy, theater, art, music, martial arts, Latin, the City of Chicago and all of its wonders, a personal library, courses in everything and anything, and more, so much more? It about killed me. I selfishly (ignorantly? angrily?) thought, I spent all of this time, talent, and treasure for him to become… cannon fodder?!? No. No, no, NO!
My husband and I believed — foolishly, as it turns out; lovingly but, in the end, foolishly, futilely — that we could steer J. to something… safer. Yes, and we thought we could help him make a choice that would be more explicable to family and friends, most of whom are (generally) well meaning but (apart from a dear one or two) somewhat set in stereotypical thinking (i.e., “Smart, well-bred young men go to college after a successful high school career”). Perhaps we, too, were somewhat set in stereotypical thinking, hmmm?
“Operation Gentle Push” (OGP) began in 2006, then, when we (often, I) would talk to J. about other branches of the service, options for military training while enrolled in a conventional four-year-college program of study, and, yes, service academies. OGP gathered momentum with J.’s applications to the summer program referenced above and, later, to the service academy itself. It hit a roadblock with the arrival of a thin envelope in mid-April 2008, but it didn’t officially become a failed mission until about two weeks ago.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
J. registered at the local college for what served as his senior year of high school. As a dually enrolled student, he took eight classes that academic year, earning twenty-three college credits. (He audited an upper-level math course first semester or his total would have been twenty-eight.) He also continued working as a swim team coach, swim instructor, and lifeguard, averaging fifteen to twenty-three hours a week during the school year, forty to fifty hours a week in the summer.
During that year, he completed the admission process for the service academy OGP had led him to, but obviously not with the fervor one would expect from an applicant to such a prestigious institution. Earning a spot requires a “fire in the belly” approach. Was there was even a coal in J.’s stomach? I don’t think so.
Even so, his response on receiving the thin envelope in April 2008 was a blend of brief, mild, and surprised disappointment (and, yes, relief, although we only recognized that in hindsight). After all, he had not been rejected once in eighteen years. He has led a somewhat charmed existence, moving from one endeavor, area of interest, and pursuit to another with success, grace, and a great deal of affable comfort and acceptance. In short, he is not accustomed to someone telling him, “No.” A day later, though, he invested in an excellent computer upgrade to work on his burgeoning game design and development interests and carried on with his semester. He had already told us in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t earn admission to the academy, he intended to complete his degree at the local college and either get a job or enlist.
Not in the Marines, though, right?
Phew. Crisis averted.
Look. You need not lecture me on the dangers, hazards, and sacrifices of the other branches of service. As one friend recently said, “He may actually be safer in the Marines than in the Coast Guard,” which was the branch of service we preferred for J. since we had known a high school friend who enjoyed a wonderful — and wonderfully safe — career in the Coast Guard. In fact, all of the men and women who serve put their lives on the line. It was parental ignorance that prompted us to favor one branch over another. It was our way of saying, “Not my child,” when, in fact, they’re all someone’s children. Moreover, it was parental foolishness to think we ever had a choice.
And the irony is not lost on me. I prided myself on my ability as a parent-teacher to tailor studies, adventures, and life in general to the needs, interests, and abilities of my children, and I was certainly confident of my ability to let my son decide and do for himself. Yet confronted with this particular choice of his — one that was neither impulsive nor ignominious, by the way — I balked. I interfered. I even — GULP! — manipulated, getting a little weepy at the mere mention of Marines.
What were you afraid of? you wonder. Please. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I was — what I am — afraid of. Reflect for just one moment on all of the mythology and lore that the words “Marine Corps” inspire and then tell me that fear is not one of your first reactions to the idea that your son or daughter may wish to become one of the few, the proud.
Every once in a while, J. would mention that the USMC recruiters had been at the college, which prompted my knee-jerk response: “You can do whatever you want, of course, since you are an adult. But you did promise to finish school first. And I thought you were planning on a career in the Coast Guard.” To which he would always offer a placating, “Yes, Mom. I will finish school first.”
My husband and I both agree that this, at least, is critical. With J.’s unconventional education, a college degree, even an associate’s, will serve him better than a homemade transcript when he enlists. Of all of our assertions and manipulations, on this point alone, I remain unwavering. But, oh, how we tried to persuade him to consider transferring to a four-year college. “With your grades! Why wouldn’t you transfer?” At one point, we even talked up UPS, which offers earn-as-you-learn programs.
Nothing seemed to hold the same appeal for him as the U.S. Marine Corps, though.
And, finally, anticlimactically, simply, two weeks ago, I let him go.
I was reading in bed when he came to wish me good night. I mentioned that his Fall 2009 tuition was due soon, which led to something about his “plans” — a regular, albeit uncomfortable, conversation-stopping topic that I felt compelled to worry, like a pimple on otherwise unblemished chin.
“You’re still planning to enlist in the Coast Guard after graduation, then?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“But that’s not really what you want to do,” I ventured. And my heart stopped in my chest. Because in that moment I wasn’t his mother. I wasn’t his teacher. I wasn’t even his friend. I was just a person who loved him and wanted him to be, if not happy, then at least himself, whoever that might be.
“What you really want to do–“
“Is become a Marine,” he interrupted, not rudely, just… animatedly. “Hell, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
No, it’s not! I wanted to shout. I felt a flash of petulance push past my better self. You wanted to be a rock-n-roll policeman! I wanted to scream, to embarrass him. I have the pictures! And you wanted to be a lifeguard! For Christ’s sake, David Hasselhoff was your feckin’ role model!
“That’s still all you want to do?” I said calmly, ignoring the petulance. “That’s what you really want to do?”
“Then do it. If you can stand there and tell me that’s what you most want to do in all the world, then do it. I won’t ever mention it again. Just promise me,” I hastily added, “that you’ll get the degree first. PLEASE. With honors.”
“Oh, my God!”
And so it goes.
Always a good man, he became, in that instant, unequivocally, his own man.
J.’s work pace slackens just a bit in late July / early August, so he hopes to meet with a recruiter then. He graduates in December; I think that means he will leave in January. I’m sure I will be moved to post more as we move closer to that last stop on the parenting train. Until then, I will leave you with just two more things.
The first is from an email message. M.C. writes:
I’ve been a reader of [my old site] for some time now. As a reader, thinker, autodidact, and potentially homeschooling mother (my son is only 2), I enjoy your entries very much. Your “On the Nightstand” feature is a favorite as a source for new ideas and material even though my own to-be-read pile is always overflowing. I have never felt the urge to comment before, and I do not usually engage strangers in conversation, but I could not help notice [J.]’s reading choices this month. I had to share a related story.
Thirteen years ago I was a newly married starving college student. My husband, who was the brilliant-but-lazy type, managed to overcome his so-so classroom experiences with a near perfect LSAT score and secure admission to Georgetown Law School. Everyone was so proud! He then did the unthinkable –- he turned it down to enlist in the Marine Corps as a basic rifleman. Friends were astounded. His mother was appalled and disappointed. People thought he was wasting his talents and his life. Understand this was before 9/11 so even the excuse of heroic patriotism was pretty thin. They just didn’t get it.
Challenged in a way he never had been before, my husband tried out for the elite reconnaissance field, made it, and served with the unit featured in Generation Kill (before the war, but many of our friends are mentioned in the book). More than a decade later he is now an officer, finished up a tour as a Recon platoon commander last year, and is currently an infantry company commander leading Marines in a dangerous part of Afghanistan. He is good at his job, finds challenge and meaning in his work, and there is one less lawyer in the world. Not surprisingly, many people still don’t get it.
If [J.] is considering the military I want to applaud him. The military needs intelligent, educated, and motivated people. A lot of people won’t understand but hopefully there are at least a few who will get it. If he is just curious, then I applaud that, too. The military is a diverse and interesting environment and I hope that popular literature and the new expanded GI Bill will cause more young people (especially those from middle class backgrounds) to consider it a viable experience. Best of luck to him whatever he chooses to do with his life.
It was a letter from a stranger that arrived at precisely the moment I needed it. Thank you.
The second thing is this:
We’re letting go of them from the moment they arrive, but today it felt a little all-at-once to me. A little “Wait! Stop! I want to get off!” A little like watching his back as he loped into the elementary school a little more than a decade ago.
It’s fine. It’s all right. We did well, it seems. He’ll be great. Today the cicadas will hum, and the grackles will rob me (again!) of all our good seed. And my daughters will make art and make me laugh. Night will fall, and then tomorrow will be here.
And so it goes.
But, in focusing on the moment I’m in right this second, I realize that sometimes a job well done feels like a terrible loss.
An empty place.
An unheld hand.
Wait. Come back.
Go. Be well. Be good. Be kind. Work hard.
Note: This entry is adapted from a piece that first appeared on my old site in June 2009.