Tristan, my seven year old, and I were playing tennis for the first time at a local park when I asked him if he was going to attend college.
Tristan was short and stocky like me. He’s also a big personality. But he got his mother’s patience and respect for authority, and up to that point, that had really paid off in school. Last year he was in first grade, but in most subjects he tested at a second grade level. He was also in this stage of life where we could suddenly have adult conversations. He seemed to be more aware than ever before.
Neither of us had any idea how to play tennis. Tristan found a couple rackets at a church swap meet he attended with his mother, and insisted that we go play. I used to play racket ball, so I showed him how to make a hold and take a swing, and then we spent some time trying to get the ball over the net.
We were on opposite sides when I asked Tristan about college.
“Do I have to go to college?” he asked.
“Well… I’d like you to. I mean, I think it’s important. But I will love you either way.”
“Why is it important?” he asked.
I didn’t really know how to explain this to him. At least not in terms he’d understand. I wanted to tell him about earning potential. I wanted to tell him about being a good provider someday. I wanted to tell him about all the friends of mine who didn’t go to college, and were now, in their early 30s, trying to go back with families, but struggling to manage it all. I wanted to tell him about how I didn’t go to college until I was in my early 20s, and how during those years after high school, I worked a steady stream of back-breaking dead-end jobs, and although I was making ends meet, I wasn’t satisfied with my life, and I knew that what I was making wouldn’t be enough to support a family. I wanted to tell him how I am more aware of life now that I’m done with college. I enjoy different things that I never understood before. I am more reflective and more logical in my marriage.
But I didn’t.
Tristan looked up at me, his racket in his left hand, the ball in his right, waiting for an answer.
“Because college made my life better,” I said. “It was hard, but now that it’s done, I’m a lot happier. It also let me be able to do what I want to do, rather than what I have to do. Does this make sense?”
Tristan’s mouth twisted to one side. Then he said, “Kind of. It just seems…” He paused for a moment. “Scary.”
I rambled on a little more. I asked him about some of the things he liked to do. We talked about how much he loved Lego’s, and how that is a lot like what an engineer does, and becoming an engineer means going to college.
As we spoke, I looked behind Tristan, to a high school kid riding a bike near the park. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had long greasy hair and was smoking a cigarette, and I thought to myself, Tristan, I just don’t want you to become that kid. We live in a small town about 30 miles outside the university I work at. Most of Tristan’s friends’ parents don’t have a college education. And I will admit that being a parent in a small town has made me a little judgmental.
Because you know what, I used to be that kid with long greasy hair, riding a bike without a shirt, and smoking. I know how close I came to not going to college. Out of the dozen or so friends I hung out with regularly in high school, I was one of three who didn’t drop out. I’ve watched those friends who didn’t finish high school struggle with drug addiction, money, and divorce. One of them committed suicide last year.
I’m old enough now to know that the world can be scary, and that early life choices can have a real impact on future success. This is not to say that attending college is the secret to a successful life, but at least it is a worthy life goal. Something that I know made my life better, and I’d have to assume that it would make Tristan’s better, too. And although I understood all of this, I was really struggling to explain it to my son.
“I just want the best for you,” I said. “And I know that you probably don’t know exactly what that means, so I will just say it like this. I want you to be happy. And finishing college has helped me be happy. It’s helped me feel better about my life, and it’s made it so we can be a happier family. I want that for you. I know this all sounds like a long ways away, and it kind of is. But what I want you to know is that college is a good thing. It’s not scary. It’s fun, actually. I made some of my best friends in college. I want you to do it, but it really is up to you. If you do go, I want you to know I will be there to help you in any way I can. And I know that your mother will, too.”
Tristan smiled. Then he said, “Deal.”
I gave him a high five. Then he stepped back, threw the ball in the air, took a swing with the racket, and totally missed.
He looked frustrated, and I said, “It’s cool, buddy. Take another shot. We will figure this out together.”
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.