Losing a Son; Gaining a Community


When we drove into Back Circle my son’s freshman fall at Transy with a car full of clothes, extra-long twin sheets, allergy air purifier and various tubs of snacks and toiletries, I expected to spend most of that sultry August afternoon hefting boxes up dorm stairs.

Instead, we’d barely parked before we were surrounded by a crew of smiling Transy students who unloaded everything for us. I carried in my son’s swim bag, but more from sentiment than any real need. His RA greeted us before we got the bed made. A far cry from moving my eldest into his hotel-massive dorm at our state university where we were just one more family moving in one more student in a long, anonymous line of families hoping for an empty elevator.

But everything about Tommy’s experience with Transy by then had surprised us, from the one-on-one lunch he’d had with the swim coach back when he was considering applying, to the handwritten postcards from swimmers and other students which regularly appeared in our mailbox over the summer. Oh, and there were the phone calls from alumni living in our area, some five hours from Lexington, offering to share information and experiences if he wanted. Not pressuring, just offering.

I felt it only a few minutes into our initial admissions tour: Transy is special. There’s a sense of community which trickles all the way down to the maintenance staff and cafeteria workers. They are proud of their school and glad of their involvement with it. A very different atmosphere from that of the small liberal arts college in the town where we live. This felt—excuse the mundane word—happy. Tommy felt it, too, but what clinched his decision were the classes he sat in on—the quality of the teaching, the dynamism of professor-student interaction. I didn’t go to the classes, of course, but I liked the stats: something like 11 students in each one. Again, a far cry from our oldest son’s experience at the state university where lecture halls can look like auditoriums; an even further cry from the huge Ivy League school I attended, where ‘small sectionals’ often had thirty students and professors were a distant figure on a stage.

Because we didn’t spend all of that first afternoon unloading, we had plenty of energy for the many orientation activities that day and the next. We didn’t see Tommy much—students and families have separate schedules—but the odd glimpse showed him busy with and enjoying his classmates. By Saturday afternoon, after seeing the students’ interactions, and understanding, from the various administrators and professors we met, just how involved they were with their charges, I was lamenting that I hadn’t gone to Transy myself, and my daughter, then a few years shy of the college process, had put it top on her list.

Remember that moment in childbirth when, after months of preparation, there’s suddenly this other person in the room with you, this very solid, very real, very loud baby? That moment when the two of you become three? Leaving a child at college is like that, only backwards. Where there were three of you in the car, there’s suddenly only—two. Nothing quite prepares you for it. But when we drove away from Transy that Saturday afternoon after the Freshman Induction Ceremony, I didn’t have the sick feeling I’d had when we left our eldest at college. I knew that this time, our student was already surrounded by community.


Margaret Stephens is a novelist and playwright. She is the proud mother of three fantastic children, one of whom is a 2012 Transylvania Graduate. She lives in rural Tennessee with her husband and daughter.