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So Ready to Send the Kids Off to College

Susan Notes:

I wrote my first fan letter to Mike Winerip when these twins were under one year old. I remain in mourning that Mike Winerip no longer writs the education column for New York Times, but here he is in top form.

Michael Winerip

âITâS only a two-minute ride to school,â said Adam. âCalm down, Dad.â He had his final final exam of high school, in economics, at 10:15 on June 17, and it was now 10:03, and how was he preparing? Reviewing his notes? No. (Thatâs what his older brother, Ben, would do.) Sharpening those No. 2 pencils? No. (Thatâs what his younger sister, Annie, had done that morning, before the eighth-grade state math test.)

A half-hour before the final, Adam had strolled around the corner to the deli to get himself a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. As much as I urged him to get to school early so heâd be in the right frame of mind for the test, so he would graduate and go away to college in the fall (please, dear Lord), he would not accelerate his pace by one newton.

I had known it would come to this. Itâs why Iâd made sure I was home that Tuesday morning. I knew I would have to bird-dog my dear twin senior boys right to the bitter end.

You donât graduate if you donât return all your books, and for weeks Ms. Katz, in Room 317 at the high school, and I had been exchanging information on the progress of the Winerip twinsâ final book roundup. (At the low point, we were looking at eight lost books between the two; however, when I said that they â not I â would pay, we whittled the list down pretty fast.)

âItâs practically mathematically impossible for me to fail,â Adam had reassured me. I tried to make the point that not failing wasnât the goal here, but he was locked on a replay of Tiger Woods sinking a birdie putt.

âRelax, Dad,â said his twin, Sam. âHis test doesnât start until 10:30.â

â10:15,â said Adam.

âYou idiot,â said Sam. âYou need to go.â

And only then, when his twin had spoken, did Adam head out the door to take his final final, accompanied by Sam, who was making one last hunt for his ninth-grade biology textbook.

They graduate on Sunday. They are off to college in the fall â separating for the first time. And though I could not love them more, I am, as my sons say, so ready. Indeed, itâs hard to know whoâs readier, the two of them or the one of me. For months Iâve been waging war on senioritis and, having been double-teamed, I am worn to a nub. It got to the point that when Ms. Palmer, the dean of discipline, called the house, she didnât bother identifying herself; she knew Iâd recognize her voice.

And so while most of the attention at graduation will rightly focus on the lofty principles espoused by the valedictorian and salutatorian, I am just thankful that somewhere in that great mass of blue robes will be my twins.

I know Iâm not alone. At our school, there was an extensive schedule of senioritis activities. Tuesday after Memorial Day was senior skip day. (âEveryone did it, Dad, itâs no big deal.â) We live on a barrier island, and on June 11 the high school sent home a warning letter saying that a âlarge groupâ of seniors had scaled the fence behind the school and jumped into the bay, âan unlawful act,â and that there would be serious consequences if it happened again. (âI swear we didnât do it, Dad, it wasnât us this time, honest, Dad.â)

My twins never had the same view of high school that I did. Through ninth grade Iâd pressed them relentlessly about their class work. But as much as I yelled, as much as I grounded them, they did not become the top students their older brother and younger sister are. I donât know how to explain it. Theyâre smart. Theyâd been in gifted programs.

They just werenât interested.

My wife and I would go to parent-teacher conferences girded for the update â the homework not turned in, the quizzes and unit tests that needed to be made up. When the teachers saw my hurt, theyâd talk about what good boys they were, how funny they were, how wonderfully social they were. I dismissed these as backhanded compliments. I had been a top student, and while I always had a small group of good friends, I wasnât particularly social, nor was being social something I much cared about.

And so, it wasnât until midway through this senior year that it finally dawned on me what had happened. Somehow, we had raised two of the most popular kids at the high school. This didnât help at the recent academic awards night, when they won a few small prizes and I left reminded of all my parenting failures. But at varsity sports night â they were stars. And when I saw the yearbook, my God, the two of them were everywhere: Adam winning a pie-eating contest; Sam, so handsome in a tuxedo for the school fashion show, blowing glitter from the stage; Sam and Adam dressed in ketchup and mustard costumes, leading the seniors to victory in the class Olympics.

Sam was voted best smile; Adam best dancer. (âAdamâs not really the best dancer,â Sam had explained to me. âHe just campaigned really hard for it.â)

I can say it out loud finally, now that theyâve got those blue robes on: As nerve-racking as they could be, itâs been a great ride. Because theyâre so different from me, theyâve taken me so many places Iâd never been, good and bad, and thatâs made me both a smarter and humbler parent. Any parenting smugness I once possessed is long gone. I know the dean of discipline sensed this. Sheâd always speak to me in gingerly tones. âMr. Winerip, itâs not that bad, I donât want to give you a heart attack.â

When this keeps happening, your parental standards shift. After a while, I could see Adamâs point: âDad, a one-day in-school suspension is not that big a deal.â

As an education columnist, I had long advocated for vocational schools, but thanks to Adam, I saw the importance firsthand. Adam had been miserable in A.P. English Composition during junior year, but in senior year he loved the carpentry course at our county vocational school, hopping out of bed before dawn to catch the bus.

Sam may have squeaked by in calculus, but his final class project, a profile of a mathematician, was masterly. He chose his teacher, Mr. Witkin, who is leaving the classroom after 33 years. Sam took a video camera around school to interview his thousand best friends, plus his teachers. That video contained everything from a close-up of Samâs bellybutton to teachers talking movingly about what made Mr. Witkin so good.

I feel sure that, even without a firm grasp of calculus, a boy whose video can make you laugh and cry will find his niche in the world.

Still, I face this summer with dread. I know there will be constant battling. Already theyâve started in on me. âWhy canât we have a 1 a.m. curfew, Dad, everyone else has a 1 a.m. curfew. Weâre 17!â

Itâs the one thing we agree on, theyâre 17. Iâve explained this is my last hurrah, that when they start college, Iâm not going to be there to tell them when to be in, when to study, when itâs O.K. to party.

As my wife and I have done for their older brother, we will pay for their four years, except for first semester freshman year. They will each pay for that with $15,000 of their summer job earnings. Our hope is that knowing how hard they had to work to save that money â putting in six days a week, nine hours a day lifeguarding as juniors and seniors; getting up at 6:30 to clean restroom toilets at the beach as sophomores; umpiring Little League games each spring â they will not waste their first year of college.

That, at least, is our hope.

E-mail: parenting@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times


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