Parenting at St. Andrew's
Liz Torrey

Current parent Lois Kim P’19,’22 gave this Chapel Talk on at our 2019 Arts Weekend Sunday service. In her talk, Kim shares insights in to what it's like to parent from 1600+ miles away, and how St. Andrew's has served as a parent not only for her children, but for herself.

 

Thank you, Tad, for that generous introduction. I am so grateful for the many years of friendship and mentorship that you and Elizabeth have given to me, my family, and to so many families here. This school is a transformational place for student learning and personal growth because of your leadership and commitment to St. Andrew’s.

Good morning. Happy Mother’s Day. I was very honored and humbled by the invitation to give a chapel talk during this Arts Weekend. It’s been an incredible weekend, and I’ve been completely blown away by the exuberant celebration of all the talented artists and athletes who performed and played this weekend with such poise and heart. It is especially meaningful to be here as my daughter, Sylvia, and the Class of 2019 experience these last precious weeks at St. Andrew’s before they graduate.

When you are a parent living in Austin, Texas, 1600+ miles away from your kids, the SAS parent experience is a little different than it is for parents within driving distance of this campus. Nearby parents can come and see their kids for their performances, their games, the gallery shows of their artistic creations, and take them to dinner or for ice cream. Nearby parents can regularly attend big school community gatherings like this Arts Weekend—to see their kids learn, create, sometimes succeed, sometimes fail—but always, always engage. Being so far away, I have missed many of these moments. This is actually the first Arts Weekend I have been able to attend. I have been, frankly, more than a little jealous. But more than jealous, I am grateful. Grateful to all the faculty and to all the nearby parents who so generously take care of the kids of faraway parents, inviting them into their homes for long weekends, making room for them in the car for Walmart or Acme runs, treating them to meals and movies out. On behalf of all the faraway parents, I want to thank all the nearby parents and of course the faculty for taking such good care of our kids.

But the truth is that whether we parents are 100 or 1000 miles away from St. Andrew’s, the transition of having your children at boarding school is hard. As parents of teenagers, we know intellectually that separation is a good thing—that separation and individuation are critical components in a young person’s maturation and journey to adulthood. We know that our kids are so deeply immersed in what they are doing every day in St. Andrew’s life—in classes, in activities, in sports, in connecting with friends and teachers—that, well, it’s ok that we parents are just not that important right now.

In my case, and perhaps yours, however, this knowledge doesn’t really make me less needy or make me miss my kids less. Sometimes days will go by when I haven’t talked to either Sylvia or Nate. [A quick sidebar: I just want Nate to know that I have now fulfilled our contractual agreement to name him once and only once in this chapel talk. Nate, you’re officially off the hook.]

It’s hard not to be able to reach your kids whenever you want to. I do respect the school’s no cell phone policy and even accept the suspiciously bad cell service that feels intentional. But perhaps fellow parents here can relate to the feeling of being rather low on the list in our kids’ minds. I’ve texted. I’ve called. I’ve contemplated sending a raven.

Because when being close and being present for your kids have been the ground rules in the operating manual you’ve been driving with, it can feel like a very contradictory, and terrifying, action to hit the brakes and decide to remove yourself from the daily oversight of your kids, to choose to create distance from them, to separate.

You may or may not have known before Tad’s introduction that I used to teach here. Let’s dial it back to 1990. I was 22, and it was nearly 30 years ago when I came to St. Andrew’s to join the faculty as a member of the English department with Tad, Elizabeth, and Will Speers—all already legendary master teachers whose guidance and mentorship were critical to someone who still thought it was reasonable to both read the novel and write the paper in the same night.

SAISL was in its early years. The Frosty Run was in its early years. There was only one Wendy’s in town and only one stoplight. Bob Colburn coached baseball. Many things were different. Many things are the same. Thirty years later, the cornfields and Noxontown Pond are as spectacular today as they are were then. SAISL and the Frosty Runs live on. Bob Colburn still coaches baseball.

Like all St. Andrew’s faculty then and now, and like all students then and now, you never do just one thing here. You wear many hats, or more accurately, you change clothes a lot during the course of the day. I was a yearbook advisor, back when the pages were laid out with graph paper and the yearbook office was in the basement under a stairwell. I was a dorm parent on Pell and M. I coached JV tennis and JV soccer. The coaching standards were much, much lower then. I was a class advisor and like you students do today, our class did a lot of fundraising. For Maui Wowie, we devised a swamp monster (an obliging and very tall junior) to emerge from the depths at Rodney Point. And we sold t-shirts. There was a lice epidemic one winter, and there was an all school meeting that took place in this very chapel, serving as the situation room where we were going to wage war using every laundry machine on campus. And we sold t-shirts. If there is one thing that hasn’t changed here, it is the entrepreneurial imperative to sell t-shirts for a fundraiser.

I spent three years at St. Andrew’s on the faculty, three full and rich years. It went fast. And I loved it. So why did I leave after only three years? When you have faculty regularly clocking in 10, 15, 20, 25 years here, why would I leave this educational and communal paradise? I loved the school’s mission, I loved my students and I felt inspired by what was happening in my classroom and all around me. How could I leave before I had even owned a faculty pet.

As much as I loved what I was doing, I was young, impatient, and inordinately worried that life was happening outside of Middletown, and I was missing it. My friends from college were working in big cities, at big jobs, for firms that owned entire buildings in New York, Chicago, and DC. I was worried my dating pool was dependent on who Jon O’Brien was going to hire the next year. It was like a really bad prehistoric version of Bumble, and my numbers were not looking good. I believed I was tired of centering my life around you kids instead of having my own. I needed to separate.

So after a couple of summers of doing graduate work at the Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury, I decided to pursue a PhD in literature full time. I was done with Delaware. I was going to Texas.

Life both sped up and slowed down. I spent many years in graduate school studying fields that I wouldn’t have imagined would be helpful in studying literature: anthropology, sociology, history, linguistics. I took years to settle on an area of study. I loved 19th century literature as much as the modernists or Shakespeare. How was I supposed to decide? I was a generalist in a specialized world and it was not easy for me to commit. I met my husband Phil, we got married, and had our first child, Sylvia. I used to take Sylvia with me to the university’s writing center where I helped undergrads with their papers. Perhaps that early exposure for her—napping in a stroller next to me while I grilled students about the evidence supporting their various claims—had some effect on her abilities as a peer reader. I have no idea, but you seniors who have had classes with her can tell me later.

I loved my life in Austin, but for many years, I have to tell you that I had recurring dreams about St. Andrew’s. In them I would always return to the campus and something had changed—either with the physical buildings, or where I lived on campus, or what I was doing here. Different teachers I knew from back then would appear. People from other parts of my life, completely unrelated to St. Andrew’s, would appear. One throughline in all these recurring dreams, though, was that I had been gone and I had come back.

Clearly, I had not really gotten this school out of my system. Why was I dreaming about this place after leaving for what I thought was for good? More than I consciously realized at the time, the St. Andrew’s ethos had pervaded my sensibilities and influenced me in ways that multiplied well beyond the number of years I had spent here. When I taught undergrads, students often remarked on my course evaluations that they had never been in a class that was so discussed-based. It was weird, but they liked it. When I made friends, they were invariably readers, obsessed with novels and politics, and always thinking about what it meant to be a citizen and how their actions could make a difference in their communities and the world. When I finally graduated and starting working at the university where I had spent so many years as a graduate student, I revealed my attachment to place and my desire to be part of a community where learning was all around me. These were all St. Andrew’s values and I was living them.

So I am not sure whether it was my idea or Sylvia’s when she was attending middle school in Austin that the idea of her attending St. Andrew’s emerged, first as a speculative, what if? And wouldn’t it be cool if? into more definite kinds of actions. Sylvia taking the SSATS (remember those, guys?), filling out the application, visiting, being accepted, and deciding yes. It’s not as if I talked about St. Andrew’s all the time but its presence and influence were obviously in the air we breathed and here we are, four years later, our family completely immersed in St. Andrew’s life, though for us, our participation often happens virtually and through digital channels: the Friday news email, Vidigami, Livestream. Speaking of these channels, huge thanks to the advancement office for being so on it in finding creative ways to share what is happening in students’ lives with the rest of the SAS community off campus. At first, you desperately look for the faces of your children. Then, you start to recognize and also look forward to reading about roommates, teammates, friends. By the end, you’re completely wrapped up in the challenges and accomplishments of all the students. I’ve changed my mind. I do want to center my life around these remarkable kids. It was surreal, it is still surreal, every time I come here, to feel that duality of my past merging with the present.

As Tad mentioned in his intro, I work for a literary nonprofit. I feel fortunate to work for an organization that champions the act of reading and creates opportunities for authors and readers to connect in meaningful ways. My day to day is occupied by a surprising number of unromantic logistical details related to putting on a big public event and also the more exciting world of authors and their books. It is a promising time in literary publishing right now, with so many important and diverse voices finally being heard and celebrated, authors whose brilliant words open up new worlds, expanding our empathy and our humanity. Some of these authors you’ve had the opportunity to hear and meet on this campus, thanks to the laser focus and negotiating skills of Elizabeth Roach. Jesmyn Ward, Colson Whitehead, Nathan Englander. And other incredible writers writing today: Min Jin Lee, Tommy Orange, Rachel Cusk, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I could go on. But despite my daily immersion in the world of contemporary literature, when I was reflecting on what it means to be a parent at St. Andrew’s, I kept coming back to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare always had a lot to say about the family, and parents and children in particular. So many of his plays configure and explore the generation gap, with characters enacting the conflicts and emotions embedded in generational change: fathers who cast away their daughters, children who fall in love outside the boundaries of parental consent, the older reluctantly having to make way for the younger. Youth and age, death and renewal, loss and recovery. The Tempest. King Lear, The Winter’s Tale. Twenty-five years ago, I studied the history and culture of early modern England to help me better understand Shakespeare’s indelible characters—their motivations, desires, flaws, and relationships. But I’ve come to realize that what studying Shakespeare really helped me understand was my family and all families today—the ideology in which the family is so powerfully immersed—and to try to grasp at why, in one way or another, we are always escaping and returning to our families.

I think you have picked up on my metaphor that St. Andrew’s is the parent who I separated from, but whose imprint was irrevocable on who I would become and what I would do and what I would value.

Some of those values—intellectual curiosity, work ethic, resilience—are there for me every day and form the bedrock of my identity. Other values—especially the spirit of fun and play—have been admittedly harder to feel when the pressure of a lot of work responsibilities are bearing down. Phil and I often have to remind ourselves and our kids: hey, we used to be fun. But in stressful times, there is always that simple and powerful elixir that continues to work its magic when I’m completely crushed physically and emotionally: just take a free day.

I’ll close with a few words for the seniors, knowing I am telling you something that you already know, whether consciously or not. That when you seniors leave that driveway for what feels like the last time, you will come back. You separated from your parents to come here, and you will separate from St. Andrew’s to your next adventure, adding experience after experience, and I hope you will see that every separation creates an opportunity for growth and change. And when you are my age, you will assemble a narrative out of your past, your different experiences, your different choices, and it will tell the story of who you are.

And because you have had this extraordinary experience at St. Andrew’s, my guess is that your story will be full of fidelity to the values you learned here, the people you came to love here, and the many returns you will make to this place, whether they are in reality or in your dreams.

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