Dear University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
Congratulations on your most recent graduation! It is quite an achievement to celebrate 216 years of granting diplomas to deserving students. Graduation day was everything I had hoped it would be and nicely framed by a gorgeous Carolina blue sky with wispy clouds floating just above the Bell Tower. As the graduates entered the stadium they formed several smooth ribbons of blue cascading down the steps into their seats. Your invitation to Dr. Atul Gawande as Spring commencement speaker was spot-on. I may be presumptuous, but I believe his address was written equally for graduates and spectators. He passionately shared why he was drawn to a career in medicine. “It wasn’t for the fame of being a doctor; but rather, I liked how it felt when I used my gifts to make a difference in the lives of people who needed them.” How refreshing to be reminded that the world needs us to be in service to others. The graduates, despite the fact that they were sweating from the bright sun aimed directly at their section of the stadium, managed to remain decorous and aside from several beach balls batted among the graduates, the ceremony was reverent and quite polite.
Do you remember the first time we were introduced? I had come up to Chapel Hill with Tim soon after Lindsey received an acceptance letter. At that time, she wasn’t certain Carolina was the place for her so, being the involved parents we are, we thought a tour of the campus was in order. We came in April, which is exactly the time you would schedule someone to visit if you aimed to impress. From my first steps in front of Jackson Hall, I couldn’t help standing in awe at your attempt to woo me. Pear trees were bursting with white blossoms and the azaleas were practically shouting “Look at me!” with their robust blooms in purple, red, lavender and pink. The student guides were catalog perfect and conducted a tour that was both informative—“Chapel Hill is the oldest public university in the US, 1789”— and fun — “We serve Pepsi products on campus. Yea Pepsi!” We were introduced to the Student Union, student store, several major buildings on campus, the Quad and the mythical Old Well. Our tour was a typical loop of campus highlights and concluded in front of a traditional residence hall with its sand volleyball pit neatly groomed. And, out of the corner of my eye, I spied the singular image that touched this mother’s heart. There in the middle of a grassy knoll was a circle of laughing co-eds, sitting knee-to-knee. And in the middle of the circle were two playful puppies rolling in the grass. Carolina, you know how to put on a show!
Late that summer, Lindsey boarded a plane from Kansas City to Raleigh to begin her freshman year. Although we heard stories that some parents took their kids to college, that knowledge seemed to be culled from late night skits making fun of the hapless parents as they tried to be “cool” and overly friendly with their son or daughter’s new roommate. Well, we were quickly informed that Lindsey was “the only one who didn’t have a parent to move me in! Thanks a lot!” You did your best to make her feel welcome by planning lots of freshman class activities—so many that by January her body gave in to exhaustion and she made a visit the local emergency room. But, the fact that she had been “dumped at Carolina” meant she had assembled a network of friends who helped get her medical assistance, returned her to the dorm, and cared for her like a family.
Now, you know how passionate I am about learning and I took several visits to Chapel Hill just to immerse myself in student lifestyle. During her freshman year, Lindsey worked for the school newspaper and on one of my visits, an article she had written was published on the front page. You can just imagine how happy that makes a parent. So when a professor, dressed appropriately in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, stopped at the newsstand to pick up a copy of the Daily Tar Heel, I ran over to him, tapped him on the shoulder and eagerly said, “Hi! You don’t know me but my daughter wrote this article and I don’t have anyone else to tell,” and I just stood there grinning. He smiled, nodded his head slowly, and said, “You must be very proud,” and off he went, as if this sort of encounter happened all the time. Over the years, I claimed my favorite places on campus to pass time while Lindsey was in class. I’ve sat on a blanket on the Quad on a new spring day; found a bench in the Arboretum and wondered how many years wisteria had been hanging over the path; curled up in a very uncomfortable chair in Davis Library and forced myself to stay put just to see what it’s like to read a book in a library; browsed through Chapel Hill gear in the student store and always made a point to visit my favorite sculpture depicting a girl carrying a stack of books.
And, once Lindsey wrapped up and had what she called “just a little free time between classes” it was off to Franklin Street for some refreshment. With every visit, there seemed to be a new joint to check out but some spots will be tucked away as special spaces dripping with great conversation and good eats: Spanky’s, Tru Wine Bar, Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and Top of the Hill.
These past four years have been first-rate but I would be remiss if I didn’t include that election year where everything seemed to align and magic occurred. The Young Dems rallied students to register to vote and Chapel Hill became a key stopping point during the campaign. I can only imagine how thrilling it was for Lindsey to meet President Barack Obama and then, a few months later, Michelle Obama. Pictures are fine, but being physically present to see, hear and smell the excitement must have been something extraordinary. I suppose there comes that time when the clingy parent has to be kicked off the coattails.
Our final weeks as parents of a Carolina student were remarkably uneventful. This time, we did manage to make several trips from our home in Pinehurst to Chapel Hill to help Lindsey move out of her apartment. And strangely enough, I spotted no other parents doing the same; clearly, we did it backwards. As graduation loomed, Lindsey’s desire to spend “one last night” with her friends on Franklin Street won out over “quality family time” watching TV at home. Her grandparents, Bill and Eva Postma and Eleanor Rietkerk, as well as her aunt and uncle, Bryan and Stephanie (CiCi) Goudzwaard, came out to celebrate with us. After a spirited afternoon of appetizers and drinks at Tru, Lindsey offered to take us on one last tour of campus. The temperature was a pleasant 70 degrees and we strolled leisurely as Lindsey gave her commentary. So many more things to love about Carolina were shared by this soon-to-be alumnus. Stories of professors who challenge the status quo, fellow students with broad goals to change the world, late night trivia games at a local bar, and the countless encounters she’s had with new friends on long walks from dorm to campus. For all of these reasons, and many more, I’m proud my daughter took a chance on you.
But really Carolina, it wasn’t necessary.
You had me at puppies.