When Aiden’s mother called me, he was a wink away from failing out of Bucknell. It was mid-January and he still hadn’t completed his courses from fall semester. The professors had been extremely lenient, and when the administration got involved, they, too, were extremely generous about providing him with extra time to complete several large take home essays for two Political Science classes that were outstanding. But now, after extending his deadline several times, they were out of patience. They had reached the date when grades for the first semester were to be released and gave him until Friday before the Monday release to complete his work. He was already on Academic Suspension, so without this work, he would fail the classes and be dismissed by the University. His mother called me on Monday, four days before that due date and the situation tumbled out of her in breathless waves of anxiety. I could tell it had already been a long ride with this kid, and she was running out of that endless supply of empathy that mothers have for their young adult children.
Aiden was from a well to-do family in New Canaan: his father was relatively uninvolved with his situation and worked in hedge fund management in the city. The mother, on the other hand, was highly involved, texting Aiden almost constantly, reminding him to complete writing assignments, sign up for extra curriculars, be nice to his roomates. While the ‘helicopter parent’ label came to mind, it was pretty clear that if he didn’t had this copious guidance, he would probably have been long gone already. But for 21 year-old, it is too much for a parent to be organizing a kid’s life: giving social pointers in a hastley sort of way, texting five times a day, checking in on the minutiae of his planner (or lack thereof). However, though I recognize the extremity, I would refrain from passing any judgement on his mother. When he was younger, he certainly needed this type of support. Our young students, and particularly those with under-developed executive function, need support in managing their lives. Most don’t come out of the womb filling out thank-you cards, emailing professors and using five different highlighters to color-code a planner.
But at some point between the beginning of his academic career and now, she had crossed an invisible helicoptery line. But it happened because it wasn’t abrupt. She was concerned he would freeze, so she took on the responsibility of putting on his coat. That worry never really went away, and she was unwilling to let him walk out into 20 degree days without it, her maternal instincts still as sharp as when he first arrived. But there is no set expiration day on coat concern that passed; it just never really went away. And there isn’t any truly authoritative place to find a playbook on when a kid should be able to figure out he should put his coat on or not. Parenting advice is as abundant and diverse as the number of parents on earth, and every kid is different.
But now he was crippled and in big trouble. He was facing failure straight in the face. And it wasn’t nice failure, the ‘learn from me’ failure. It was the hack off an arm and stare at the bloody stump in agony type of failure. Yes, he would learn to stay away from Machetes after that and that’s good… but he wouldn’t have an arm and wouldn’t be able to grow it back. He needed a good dose of failure, it’s true, but first he needed rescuing, even if it was the thing his mother had always done for him and kept him in arrested prematurity. Ironically, to rescue him from the poison, he needed a good dose of it first, a healthy dose of methadone under careful supervision, on the first mile of the road to recovery.
My tutors were all occupied, and by the time I set him up with one, we would have lost a day or maybe even two in getting it set up and arranged, so I cancelled all my other sessions and buckled in myself. We put in 20 hours of tutoring time over the course of four days and completed 6,000 words of Poly-Science essays from the beginning phases of preparation to completion to eke in under the deadline. He ended passing his courses and even squeaked out a GPA a hair over 3.0. His mother felt a mixture of relief and trepidation over what was to come next. After all, he still needed to complete three more semesters of college, and then there was that whole little detail of surviving in the working world as a fully functioning adult.
I set him up with Alex Barron, an English teacher at Boys Latin School of Maryland, a well regarded private school in Baltimore. Alex began meeting with him three times a week during the spring semester, at set times during the week. It was pretty rocky at first. Aiden showed up late to some sessions and skipped out on a few, as well. While he didn’t complete his coursework in the spring semester on time, there was some improvement, as only one long essay was outstanding, and a couple of shorter ones. He did require some intensive support on these essays in May. While his mother wasn’t pleased, one can’t go through life showing up late to everything, it was important to note it was an important step forward. His mother wanted to come down on him hard for being late with his work yet again, but I convinced her to A) Stay positive about his progress and B) Consider the long term. Alex celebrated his progress, and even helped him land a summer internship in investing by working on his resume and corresponding with his connections.
The fall semester of his senior year started off with the same degree of rockiness. We struggled to get a regular schedule in place; he continued to drop occasional sessions and show up late to others. His first set of essays required extensions and the mercy of a few professors. But a funny thing happened around mid-semester. He began to meet more regularly and committed to a consistent tutoring schedule, he began completing reading assignments ahead of the assessments, found a good work space away from the distractions of his ripe social life, planned ahead for the papers and tests. He completed the semester on time that winter and was almost incredulous about it, and most definitely relieved. He had learned a critical lesson that seems more obvious to adults than college students: life becomes much easier and more rewarding if you plan ahead. His Holiday vacation became a tour of victory for Aiden. He spoke with more purpose, communicated more reliably with text and email, kept his appointments. He had developed a sense of pride in his work that had seemed more dreadful to him than before.
And once a student learns these lessons, they don’t regress. He graduated Bucknell that spring on time and already had a job lined up for after graduation, which he had landed in the early spring. His parents, and especially his mother were overjoyed, yes, but even more notably, relieved. He had officially left the nest, and developed skills to keep him afloat during the challenging years that laid ahead for Aiden. He had faced the gauntlet of young adulthood, felt its cold metallic teeth reaching for his flesh, and survived.