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Holding the drum

10/24/05 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) This is about the time that some of the students who recently started college begin to experience difficulty. They call home to say that college is not what they thought it would be. Commentator Vic Henningsen reflects on how parents face this challenge.

(HENNINGSEN) What do you say to a child struggling to adjust to college? This, after all, is a moment when parents are supposed to offer sage advice and to issue traditional warnings against unsuitable activities, substances, and associates.

I received no such guidance. My father went to college after ser- ving in World War II, part of that wave of returning veterans who knew exactly what they wanted. They found the dangers of loose living not daunting, but positively attractive in comparison to con- voy duty or amphibious landings. College wasn't a step to adulthood - they'd been there for some time - so they weren't always helpful when it was time for their own children to go. When I left, my dad told me just one thing, "Don't waste your time playing bridge."

I think he meant to say more, but couldn't find the words. When my turn came, I found myself struggling too.

As a teacher, I could easily summon all the standard advice. Don't concentrate too early, do a variety of things. Get to know a professor, well. Take a writing course you'll get lots of feedback. Study a language, it's fun and you'll see results quickly. But it's a bit different with your own child. What to say that will guide him and keep him safe? What to say that will encourage her to stay the course when things get tough and nothing seems to be working out?

In his book Making the Most Out of College, researcher Richard Light summarized the results of a ten year study that sought to identify the characteristics of a successful undergraduate exper- ience. Among a variety of suggestions, three words stand out: Hold the drum.

This comes from a conversation between an adviser and an unhappy first year student for whom nothing was working. Encouraged to get involved in an extra-curricular activity, the student responded that she didn't know what she could do. What about band? asked the adviser. The student claimed no musical talent whatever. To which the adviser responded, "Ask them if you can hold the big bass drum."

She did, and towed the drum that others beat. But her involvement with the band, small though it was, opened a new world of people and ideas and helped her take off in college.

Hold the drum. It seems simple enough, but it really isn't. When things are closing in, reach out. When the familiar doesn't work, try the strange. Stay open. Keep moving.

So child, as you struggle to make your way, remember: It's your life. Go live it. And when it gets tough, as it will, and you doubt yourself, as you will, try holding the drum.

This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.


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