By RALPH GARDNER JR.
May 25, 2016 8:47 p.m. ET
Here’s a question all responsible teenagers should ask themselves when applying to college: Is this school some place where my parents would want to hang out?
Or not, I suppose, depending on the quality of the relationship.
I say this after bidding farewell to Kenyon College in Ohio, the school that both my daughters attended.
Indeed, so much did my wife, Debbie, and I enjoy the institution that we didn’t just attend my younger daughter Gracie’s graduation last week, we also visited two weeks earlier to see her final dance performance.
This was no small time commitment. Each trip required driving approximately 10 hours each way from New York.
Visiting your children in college—for us, it usually meant parents weekend plus one other occasion, typically driving them back or forth from home at the beginning or end of the school year—shouldn’t be confused with helicopter parenting.
Not for a second did we consider buying a second home to be near her.
But there is something to be said for enjoying and understanding their lives in a way you can’t by monitoring their Instagram feeds.
Dropping in isn’t just to make sure they’re not skipping classes or meals but also to amortize the absurd cost of college by participating in the institution’s delights yourself.
Gracie Gardner, Class of 2016, with sister Lucy Gardner, Class of 2011. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Part of the reason we went out two weeks before graduation was to experience the campus absent the tumult of graduation, and to stay at the Kenyon Inn.
The hotel has Adirondack chairs dotting a verdant lawn. And it’s located not just in the center of campus but across the way from the town of Gambier’s “main street, ” which is lined with a market, a deli, a cozy restaurant, a coffee house and the college bookstore.
During family weekends, it’s virtually impossible to get a room at the Kenyon Inn. We’ve been forced to scramble to find lodging elsewhere. On one occasion that meant sharing a barn with dairy cows we could hear grunting through the wall all night.
For graduation, we stayed in a dorm. Which also brought back the indignities of college life. While nobody was blasting heavy metal at 3 a.m., I’d forgotten the discomfort of brushing my teeth next to a stranger.
The only problem with getting attached to our daughters’ school is that parting was almost as hard for us as it was for them. The sadness of having Gracie graduate was accentuated by the fact that there was no logical reason to believe we would return to Kenyon again.
On graduation day, it rained and the ceremony had to be moved into the gleaming, glass-walled Kenyon Athletic Center.
John Green, a Kenyon alum and best-selling author of young adult fiction, delivered a refreshingly frank and funny commencement address. He informed the graduating seniors that adulthood is as dreadful as they imagine: “I mean, have you ever been to a homeowners’ association meeting?”
But it doesn’t really matter what the weather was. Years from now, what you’ll remember are sunny skies; a great professor or two; a sense of novelty that you realize only in retrospect was because you were vulnerable and impressionable, even though you imagined yourself a fully fledged adult; and being part of a tightknit community never to be replicated, no matter how satisfying your life turns out to be.
When we returned home Sunday night, with suddenly no more children in school for the first time in decades, I felt at a momentary loss, much the way I did when I returned from my own college graduation, disoriented and wondering what happens next.
You don’t really need to be overly worried, though. Unlike college, life goes on.
Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com