For an adult who is no longer young but not yet old, there is perhaps no better preparation for death than sending a child to college.
That’s not because it’s a reminder of the ceaseless march of age, though it is. It’s not because it unleashes a stampede of wild memories, though it does. And it’s not because it’s a moment that marks multiple beginnings and endings, although those fires do ignite and extinguish.
It’s because adulthood distances you from the experience of dreading things that are certain to come about eventually. It’s not that you dread more things, or graver things, when you’re a kid—time seems to lurch slowly, death seems long off, bills don’t stack up, and all the rest. But for young people, dread for small things feels constant. They aren’t in as much direct control of their lives as adults are, and many things feel like they happen to them. By adulthood, that relationship with dread wanes (even if others, like the shadow of certain death, wax). Sending your child away to school offers a taste of that particular flavor of fate—as well as an inspiration to manage it more deliberately.
Youth is actually pretty traumatic. For some, of course, merely getting through the day is a trial, because of poverty, or prejudice, or any manner of other obstacles. But even the fortunate younger person experiences continual, violent change, and from a very early age. The comfort of home gives way to the distance of school. Your own will is subordinated to the choices of your guardians, which often seem arbitrary and capricious. That plays out on fractal scales, from cross-country moves to inconvenient errands. The moment you become acclimated, all the terms change again. One school erupts into another. Friends arrive and vanish again. Your body transforms completely, devouring itself and regurgitating a foreigner. Urgent pressures to perform, often detached from any meaningful reason, mount one atop the other. Childhood and adolescence are hardly awful on the whole, but nor are they the idylls adults sometimes romanticize.