the easiest way to tell a student from a parent.

I remember graduating from college and thinking “Why can I automatically tell that someone is a parent, even if they don’t have their kids with them?” There was this look when parents’ faces idled that I could always recognize, a look of strained focus that still seemed authoritative somehow.

Today, I walked across the campus of my alma mater as a 34-year-old father of two, and noticed that look in reverse. The look of tired authority was completely absent on most faces–there was no strain, no seriousness somehow. I would hesitate to call this look “relaxed,” as if younger people have no cares in the world. They care about plenty of things. It’s just that, no one seemed to be needed anywhere. They might’ve had a class, sure. But students at a private college are not needed in class. Class is voluntary, especially the dumb ones.

Everyone was walking across campus like they were window shopping in a mall–like a mall of ideas. Buy or don’t buy. Whatever you want.

So I thought to myself: did I ever feel needed in college? Did I ever act with the sort of energy that implied that my decisions could have a serious affect on my surroundings?

I think that the look that I noticed on parents’ faces back then was the look of the needed.  That is, the continually, fundamentally needed. A roommate might need you for a few days–a child or a grieving spouse needs you continually. I remember the college vibe being like “do what you want, be what you want, whatever.” Stay up all night reading or playing XBox, your choice. The world was like a generous and overly permissive parent. I could change my major on a whim. I ate at a buffet every single day. I set my own schedule. I came to class, or I didn’t.

“You’re only hurting yourself!” well-meaning people said when I fucked up. Well, yeah, so then who the hell cares? was my reaction.

But then life steamrolled me and I stumbled (very happily) into relationships of need. Pretty soon I could wake up at 3AM, prepare a bottle, and change bedsheets without so much as a single clear thought in my head, and then work for 8 hours the next day. I took myself seriously. I scrutinized all of my actions because I figured it would result in my loved ones being protected.

If this sounds heroic then let me pivot before I close: when people started needing me it was out of nowhere, all of a sudden. So I got the first job I could think of. We added a son to our family. I got a different job, again the first available. When I started to get headaches from stress and lack of sleep, I did the easiest thing available: took meds. Then our daughter came along. I worked third shift, sleeping away most of it under my desk. Suddenly the possibilities of our future narrowed and narrowed, until I could barely see it.

Life punches us in the face. So we put our hands up. Just so it doesn’t hurt quite as much.

But life not hurting as much is different from it actually being good.

It seemed to me, as I walked across that campus today, that the look on people’s faces was the look of those who hadn’t been punched in the face very much yet, and who didn’t have anyone who was really counting on them to start punching back.

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