30: Two Tour Trips With Dad

30: Two Tour Trips With Dad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

Two Tour Trips with Dad

Any man can be a father. It takes someone special to be a dad.

~Author Unknown

While on the phone with Kim, an old friend from summer camp, the topic of college visits came up. “I don’t know what school I want to go to,” she said, “but there are a couple of schools in Boston that I’d really like to visit.”

“Me too,” I said. “Hey, my dad and I were planning on going up there over February break. You should come with us!”

Perfect timing! It must have been serendipity, or else a lucky break. You see, I loved my dad, but as a high school junior, I couldn’t imagine spending four straight days with only him. I was the oldest of four kids, two of whom were under age ten, so Dad and I were almost never alone. The closest we’d come to talking one-on-one were the ten-minute drives home from play rehearsals, with my five-year-old sister bouncing and commenting from the backseat.

And whenever we did talk, he tended to dole out advice that felt a lot like criticism. If I complained about the amount of schoolwork I’d been given, he’d say that I had to buckle down and study harder. If I slept in on weekends to recover from the studying, I was lazy. Even when he came to see the plays I performed in, he couldn’t turn off the critique. It was always “You were great, but...” You were great, but you could have been louder. You were great, but you seemed like you were tripping over your words. You were great, but don’t you think you were overacting a bit?

I knew he loved me, but sometimes I felt helpless in his eyes, always floundering, in desperate need of advice.

But, to his credit, Dad drove two chattering girls toward Boston for four hours. He did not complain.

The next morning, we were up at the crack of dawn so that we could squeeze two tours in. Somehow, amid arguments between Dad and Kim on how to navigate the subway system, I found myself on my first college tour. Kim seemed to be on a mission to out-talk the tour guide. She floated from family to family, chatting about whatever came into her mind, making observations and flaunting statistics she knew about the school. I just followed in a daze, overwhelmed by the blend of city aura and ancient grandeur of academia, trying to imagine myself as one of the students chilling on a ledge by a statue, so cool and casual and at home. My dad was, apparently, feeling the same way. I watched him look around in awe, shake his head and laugh, “It’s a playground.”

When my dad was a kid, he had to spend four years in the Navy before he could get them to pay for his schooling, which he completed at night while working during the day. He never had the teenage on-campus college experience, and as I realized that, it hit me just how privileged and lucky I was.

The trip progressed and we toured more schools. Kim did her outgoing thing, and Dad and I did our “hanging back and making the occasional snarky comment” thing. Kim argued with Dad about directions, and one night she confided to me that she was going to sneak out and meet her long-distance boyfriend the next day. “Don’t tell your dad,” she said.

I don’t know if it was the excess of college store caffeine in my system, or the fact that I had not been alone for three straight days, but for whatever reason, her plan made me really angry. How dare she take advantage of my dad after all he had done for us on this trip? I was the only one who was allowed to lie to him!

It turned out Kim was not as stealthy as she imagined, and Dad figured out that she was trying to sneak off to meet a significant other. I thought he would freak out, but instead he very smoothly insisted on accompanying Kim to meet her boyfriend. I joined him on the awkward encounter that followed and, I must confess, laughed at Kim a little.

After returning exhaustedly home, I decided that my next tour would just be my dad and me.

Three months later, Dad and I bid the siblings goodbye and set off alone for the eight-hour drive to Ithaca and Syracuse, New York. I was a bit more optimistic about this second journey, but still wondered how we would coexist that long without exploding.

But somewhere along the endless stretch of road and Dad’s mix CDs, we began talking. We talked about music (it turned out I really liked the CDs he made) and somehow, that turned into the subject of me. I found myself telling him about my life, pouring out tidbits about teachers, things I’d done with my friends, and eventually (against my better judgment) my insecurities. Ever Dad-like, he responded with advice. At one point he tried to tell me about the birds and the bees (that was awkward) but the biggest surprise of the car talk came from his observation about something I never thought he noticed.

“I’ve realized that when you talk about college, you aren’t talking about acting,” he said. “And you aren’t acting in school plays as much as you used to. What’s up with that?”

Well,” I said, surprised, “I figured it’s not worth it to study something I’m never going to make money from.”

“That’s stupid, Valerie!” he said angrily. “Never stop doing theater. You’re really talented!”

I stared at him, waiting for the “but...” It didn’t come. For some reason, over the course of the trip, the critique filter turned off for both of us. Maybe Dad chilled out because he wasn’t under so much pressure to take care of four kids, or because he realized that in just two years, I would be gone. And maybe I stopped getting so defensive because I realized how much I would miss him.

Ithaca and Syracuse were cool, but the trip, for me, wasn’t about school anymore. It was about the little things — the fact that Dad never made me drive even though it was a long, tiring trip; about how, once we found a vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, Dad let us eat there two nights in a row even though he probably just wanted a burger and a beer; the amazing feeling that came from having someone focus on your feelings, care about your opinions. Sure it was only a weekend, but for that weekend, I had my Dad to myself.

One year later, on the eve of my acting school auditions, I practiced my monologues for the last time, performing them for my dad. I finished and told him, “That’s it!” in a shaky, overcompensating voice.

He shook his head. “If they don’t take you after that,” he said, “I don’t know what their problem is.”

And for the moment, that was enough.

~Valerie Howlett

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