Monday, June 22, 2009


"You're home early," says Middlest, looking up from her homework at the kitchen table. It is the last week of school.

"Yep," as I toss keys into the red tin breadbox and walk down the hall.

"Whoa, you're home earlier than you said," says Eldest also, leaning away from the bathroom mirror.

"That I am."

In the bedroom Fritz says, "That didn't take very long."

I shrug, "She didn't have her ID."

"That's aggravating."

"Not really. I wondered. I think she's taking the assessment mostly to stop me nagging."

Fritz grunts.

She's a particularly bright young woman who graduated last week from high school. Our town has been a milltown for generations and the school here has put its emphasis on getting kids ready for jobs in the mill. But the mill is gone.

Last winter, when she kept shrugging everyone off who asked what her plans after high school were -- "Oh, I think I'll live in a cardboard box in New York City" -- I finally blurted out, "You really don't know what you're going to do, do you?" And for a moment - blank fear on her face and a kind of mute gratitude. She came over on President's Day and we looked at her options - she's already taken some community college credit but needed a placement test.

Which test has been the topic of our back-and-forth ever since. "Ready to schedule a trip for the assessment?"

"I've got rugby practice."

"When are we going in to take that test?"

"I don't know. I can't find my access number."

This week, the last before I go stay with my parents for awhile, I turned up the pressure, "So just bring picture ID and we'll see if that will get you in." I wasn't sure it would, but at least it would get things rolling.

Now Fritz says, "So you drove all the way there - for nothing?"

Here's where I don't know how to answer. It's not nothing. This fruitless drive to the main campus of the community college - an hour and fifteen minutes both ways - it meant something. I say, "She felt bad. She said she felt horrible. And promised to find her ID. We'll go again on Friday."

"Well," says Fritz, "I hope you . . . " he has suggestions for what I should have said.

I said nothing except, "Oh, well. These things happen. We'll have to come back in again. When's the soonest you can come?"

Fritz shakes his head at the teaching opportunity missed, he who straightforwardly (as he believes) goes directly after what he wants. If you want a future - he says - you study hard, you go to college, you appreciate those who help along the way. It's as simple as that.

I, on the other hand, believe we are all more convoluted than we would like to believe, yanked and tugged by subterranean currents. I believe, too, in the importance of dramatic symbolic action as a kind of ritual that frees you from the inner maze.

This is a young woman who has never seen a member of her family go to college. And she is cool - she doesn't try things that she's going to fail. So I get to play the part of the geeky, half-clueless grownup (I'm a natural) who nonetheless holds the map to future roads and is willing to drive her the first part of the way there.

"So, you feeling pretty confident about this test?" I ask her when we head out again Friday morning, over-heartily.

"Actually, I really don't want to take it," she says, in a peeved tone which would enrage me if this were my daughter, but is only funny in her (and which reminds me why I am so grateful to the other women who have taken time to mentor my own girls). She's mostly concerned that I'm not going to get her back in time for the barbecue her auto shop teacher is throwing.

"Well, I'm glad then you're taking it for my sake. So I won't have to worry about it while I'm out of town." Even I can hear the jolly dorkiness in my voice.

When we get to the campus, though, she has her ID in her wallet. And she's found her access number. I wait at one of the small tables while she takes the test - talking to my parents on the cellphone, sketching out the shape of my next chapter - pretty near as productive a morning as if I'd spent it at home.

"Here," she shows me her scores a few hours later and waits for my praise. She's done well and I tell her so.  She smiles a tiny smile with pink cheeks.

"Now you just need to look at the catalog and get signed up for classes!"

She groans, rolls her eyes.

The ride home we don't talk about her trip with a friend to California next week. We don't talk about books we've loved like we did a couple of evenings before. It's midday. I feel awkward with the silence. She is bored and carefully patient when I stop off for my CSA share at the farm.

The rest of the ride back to our town she's on her phone, calling friends to track down info about the barbecue - which is, thank goodness, not yet started. But soon. "Can you drop me off by the back of the high school?"

I can.

There is so little I can do.

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