The tail lights of a Mercedes E-class blink off as it accelerates through the stone gate pillars.
An exhaust pipe of a BMW 5-series coughs up a plume of fetid smoke.
On occasion there is a slight wave from a Lexus RX 350’s window—a white hand, manicured nails, rings with rocks worth more than my guidance counselor’s annual salary.
Finally, the parents leave and I have their sons.
And why shouldn’t they leave? They’ve done their job, stroking a six-figure check to matriculate their beloved young men to a storied academic institution. Our curriculum is rigorous. Our faculty are accomplished. Our alumni are renowned, giving commencement speeches on how easy it is to be successful in life by using one’s knowledge and skills and grit—and generational wealth. Here on hundreds of acres, their progeny will learn how to row crew, play lacrosse, tie a Windsor knot, and learn what fork to use when bribing a congressman at dinner.
The cars come and go—much like my smile when they pass out of view.
🜋 🜋 🜋
The students arrive in clusters on the quad, milling about, yelling to friends, jockeying for position on the social strata.
I stand ready to welcome them—to make them feel as if they were home.
The jaded upperclassmen know the drill. Meandering towards the dormitories, they have their duffel bags and expensive suitcases and knowing smirks. There is talk of summer girls and pilfered alcohol and pharmaceuticals and college applications and essays to write, but—should worse come to worse—their fathers will buy a building on a college campus to ensure their sons’ admission.
The sophomores are a happy lot, quick to discover others on campus more loathsome than they are. I find it ironic how quickly the 10th graders embrace their newfound role of bullying, as if they weren’t still the picker of zits and noses. Their greasy hair sticks up at odd angles. Axe Body Spray fails at its singular purpose. Their ties are askew, tied too short. Their khakis are two inches higher than they should be because they’ve grown over the summer and no one has taken the time to notice. But they good naturedly punch one another. They laugh, braying like pack animals. I nod at them. At least they are socializing.
The fourteen-year-old freshmen have no idea what to do. They stand apart with their untidy bundles about their feet, necks bent into their phones, ignoring all about them, even the million dollar landscaping that their parents are paying for.
To steel themselves for their new normal, these children—who are now strangers in a strange land—digitally disappear into the ether.
It’s my first job to bring them back.
🜋 🜋 🜋
Fifty freshmen sit in the auditorium, their welcome packets unopened on their laps or under their feet or lost somewhere between the parking lot and the auditorium. I bring an armful of extras.
Using the remote, I queue up 80+ slides of rules and regulations to review. The new students will retain next to none of it, but I gamely give them my best warm-and-welcoming smile.
“Welcome, gentlemen!” I say again from the podium. “Please put away your phones for a bit. I want to go over some housekeeping items with you.”
“Housekeeping? Do we have to clean?” asks one of the smaller boys, his voice cracking from delayed puberty. His name tag reads DYLAN.
“It’s an expression,” I assure him. “Housekeeping means we are just going over some things to make sure we’re all doing what we should be.”
Dull eyes gaze up from their screens, but only for a moment. I ask them to put their phones away again. Soon they’re fidgeting, wondering when the lunch buffet will open.
“Now look in your manilla envelope. You will find your key code card, room number, and roommate assignment.”
“Wait, what? I’m sharing a room?” Dylan cries out, apparently missing that point on the dormitory tour I gave him and his family last spring.
“All first years share a room—”
“My dad said—”
I cut him off. “All first year boys share a room. Single rooms are only available for upperclassmen.”
I look at him over my glasses. Your dad isn’t here, I say without verbalizing it. And I’m sorry about that, but here we are.
He slinks back into his chair.
🜋 🜋 🜋
To an extent, the new boys have successfully found their lodgings, have determined how to deal with their new roommates, and have consumed their body weight in pizza and soda.
During Recreation Time, I see them making tentative moves towards each other. I marvel at the primal need to belong to something—even a ping pong tournament.
They’ll find their friends in time. Until then, I’ll keep an eye on them.
I stand at the back of the recreation room to watch the freshmen discover their common interests. The sports junkies are in the corner talking football stats for the fall. The anime enthusiasts are scribbling together in a silent brotherhood over by the art room. Several boys are shooting pool (badly) while the gamers are light years away in their virtual reality headsets.
I scan the room, quickly determining there is peace in the valley.
On my way out of the building, I see a lone figure.
“Hi Dylan,” I say. “You want to hang out with the others?”
He is sitting in a chair on the portico, facing the late afternoon sky. There is a nip in the air promising fall, the change of leaves already evident.
“Did you get enough to eat?” I try again.
I sit next to him.
“I am,” he replies.
We sit in companionable silence.
After a few minutes, he turns to me. “Do I have to go to recreation? Can I just sit here?”
“You can sit wherever you wish, Dylan. Recreation Time is meant for you. Do what makes you happy.”
“I think I like being alone.”
“It’s good to have time by ourselves to ponder our thoughts,” I say. And Dylan, sometimes we’re the loneliest in crowded rooms.
“That’s okay, isn’t it? To want to be alone?”
“Shakespeare wrote that ‘society is no comfort to one not sociable.’”
“I don’t think I know what that means,” he admits.
“It means we introverts need to stick together. It’s a noisy world out there.” I roll my eyes and gesture towards the recreation room. Dylan laughs. “And figuring out that you prefer your own company is a really good thing.”
“Know thyself,” Dylan replies. “That's Shakespeare, too, I think. My dad says that all the time.”
“It’s not bad advice.”
Fireflies blink on and off along the tree line.
“Okay. I’m going to let you hang out with yourself,” I say, standing up.
You will be, I think of little Dylan on the portico. You will be.