My Son Seems Happy at College. But Is He?

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Social Q’s

My husband and I have one son, who started college last month. We’re both surprised that he has come home every weekend since school began. He takes a two-hour train ride home on Friday, and we drive him back on Sunday night. He seems to be pretty happy at school, if a little withholding on the details. But as Sunday progresses, and especially during the drive back to campus, he seems really down. My husband thinks this is a routine case of homesickness, and we should let it play out. But I want to talk with our son on the next Sunday drive. Any thoughts?


Not only do I have thoughts, Gina, I have vivid memories and a soundtrack for you. When I started boarding school, I cooked up as many reasons for visiting home as you would expect from a ferociously homesick teenager. On one of the dreaded Sunday drives back to campus, wouldn’t you know that “Sweet Baby James” came on the radio, with James Taylor crooning about a lonesome cowboy? But as the tears streamed down my cheeks, my awesome mother pretended not to see them. Tact had never felt so generous.

I agree that you should talk with your son, but not at the height of his vulnerability. He may be barely holding it together in that car. Bring it up over lunch or dinner on Saturday. Let him know how common homesickness is, and share your own stories (true or lightly fictionalized). And make sure that nothing more serious is afoot.

You and your husband should also encourage him to spend the next few weekends, post-talk, on campus. (You can visit if strictly necessary.) But sadly, the only way to get comfortable with independence is to try it on a few times. And the good news: If you play it right, the homesickness should abate by Thanksgiving. (Though I still can’t listen to “Sweet Baby James” without a lump in my throat.)

Hippie or Homeless?

On the first day of kindergarten, a fellow parent showed up with rattail hair and bare feet. I live in a town where this could be a lifestyle choice, or she could be homeless and need shoes. I can’t think of a socially acceptable way to find out. I would happily buy her shoes if she needs them, but I don’t want to offend. And I fear that her unconventional approach to dressing may hurt her child’s chances at making friends with the children of boring, conventional parents like me. Should I stay mum or say something?


How about inviting the mom for coffee after drop-off one morning? (Though preferably not at a “no shoes, no shirt, no service” joint.) Or suggest a play date after school. Maybe by extending your (self-professed) bourgeois hand in friendship, you will convince the other conventional parents to give this mom and child a break.

Only caveat — from one who can also be judgmental: Try to suspend your critique of the mother. Anna Wintour is alive and well and doesn’t need any help from you editing “Vogue.” And making a direct offer of lace-up charity to a stranger who has not asked for assistance (primarily because you are uncomfortable with her bare feet) may be the definition of awkward.

Still, the two of you have something exciting in common that spans aesthetic and socioeconomic gaps: Your kids are starting school together. Stay focused on that. This new mom may end up expanding your horizons as much as you do hers.

The A B C’s of Dating

I am a special-education teacher at an elementary school. (I am also a single dad with a daughter at the school.) This summer, I began dating a woman who has a child with special needs who — wait for it! — will be a student of mine in the coming academic year. I want to disclose our relationship to the principal. But my girlfriend disagrees. She is afraid that the principal will decide it’s inappropriate for me to teach her son, and require him to be bused a long distance to another school. What should I do?


I have no idea what the fraternization rules are at your school (though they shouldn’t be hard to discover) or how tough it is to be the single mother of a special-needs child, for that matter (hence, perhaps, your girlfriend’s fear). But not disclosing a romantic relationship with a parent of one of your students seems like poor judgment. In my experience, secrets only breed shame, and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about here.

It’s also hard to believe that your principal would impose such rough justice as busing a child, assuming that you and his mother are comfortable with him in your classroom (even after a possible split). Learn the rules, try to reassure your girlfriend and tell her you plan on speaking with the principal. If she still disagrees, she can end things with you, which would be a shame, but her call. It would also make the issue a nonissue.