An education of immersion in absence

God is giving us a glimpse of our future here at Hennessey House. It’s the future we’ll be facing in two years (*gulp*) when some of the ganglier people around here start folding their laptops and heading to college.

Our Clara, 16, is breaking free of the lockdown and spending a few weeks out west at Wyoming Catholic College. This small, classical liberal arts school is less than two decades old—still in its gangly phase. It offers what it calls an “education of immersion” in the Western tradition, “the beauty and challenges of the wilderness,” and “the treasures of our Catholic spiritual heritage.”

All that stuff is okay by me. WCC happens to be famous for its horsemanship program. Clara and 50 other high schoolers from all around the country are riding the trails, reading Thucydides, and not calling home.

To me, the enforced de-plugging was a big selling point. The program collects all the kids’ phones on the evening they arrive, locking them up and burying the key under a cow pat. I’m sure the first days of withdrawal were difficult. Hopefully the horses weren’t too spooked by their sweaty, fidgety, gangly riders.

Paying someone to confiscate your teenager’s cell is the next big “pre-college experience.” Take my word.

The downside of the undigital fortnight is that Clara won’t come home with a phone full of pictures of the mountains she’s hiking or the stars she’s sleeping under. The upside is she will actually spend some time looking at those mountains and stars and not at the mesmeric, internet-enabled ball-and-chain.

I do hope she’s enjoying herself. My guess is she’s learning a lot. About herself, about the Peloponnesian War, about staying up later than you should, and about the vast scope and exciting diversity of this country. Perhaps she’ll get lucky and see a bison or a grizzly bear. From a distance, I mean.

So how are we, the left behind, getting on in her absence? Depends who you ask.

“I do miss Clara,” says Billy, who turns 4 soon. “Can I have a mango squeezer and some Honey Nut Cheerios in a cup?” He isn’t the sentimental type. I ask Sally, who is 7, if she’s noticed anything different lately.

“Not really. Will you come outside and spray me with the garden hose?”

I’m not surprised the second-division siblings are less than broken up. The fact is, we are all sweltering to death in an early summer heatwave and diligently avoiding exposure to the virus Billy calls “the big bad worm.” We are dealing here with the beauty and challenges of our own little wilderness.

Still, Mrs. H. and I can’t help but frown at the empty bottom bunk in the girls’ room. We’ve set our iPhone weather apps to Lander, Wyoming, and we check the WCC Instagram for updates constantly. It feels like we’re missing a body part.

Lord, make us ready to see our children fly off and become well-functioning, independent adults with good jobs, families, cell phones they can pay for on their own, and even horses if they want them. Just not yet.

When I was a boy, I watched my two older sisters head off to college. Each time one left, my status in the house improved. I got my own room, and more space on the couch. Their departures created holes in the house, but I wasted no time filling them right up.

When it was my turn to go, my mother offered her big, gruff boy an emotional warning: “Moms are allowed to cry when they drop their sons off at college.” She should have saved her tears. I was back living at home three months later.

Not so big, not so gruff, turns out. Pretty gangly though.

Interesting thing about being a kid: You never really think about your parents when they’re not around. Interesting thing about being a parent: You never really stop thinking about your kids no matter where they are. Parenthood is an education of immersion.

“It’s a little like how God’s always waiting around for us to come back,” observes Mrs. H. “Your parents never give up on you even when you forget about them for a little while.” Ain’t that the truth.