• I wish I had a photograph — or, better yet, a video clip — of Sam in the family van, heading out of our driveway this morning. I thought of running inside to get my  camera/phone. It just didn’t seem the right moment to impose my Smotheriness on Sam and his friend, both strapped in for their last trip from Boston to Ohio. So, I will conjure the image through words.

    A pale, winter sun had risen, revealing a clear sky. Far above the garage, a songbird perched on a bare branch. It wiggled and warbled. Nary a car passed on the street ahead. The mini-van — nominally “Silver Gray” — dented and dinged in its 13+ years of service — stood at the ready. Sam had commented as he’d lifted the hatchback that even it made a rasping sound these days. Sam turned the key in the ignition, causing his steed to cough to life, emitting more of a Lauren Bacall three-pack-a-day burr than an emphysemal wheeze.

    And then…they sat, these two young men, going nowhere. I stood in the drive, warm enough in my long underwear, Polar Fleece pants, ratty wool sweater, and down vest. I scanned the bare branches, the song bird, the plume of exhaust puffing out the back of the van. Then, like steam from a sauna, wafted a beat to put a shimmy into the Old Grey Mare’s hum.  Sam’s single upgrade when he inherited the O.G.M.: a first-rate sound system, which neither Mark nor I can figure out how to silence when we are infrequently behind its wheel. A minute more, and the guys were off.

    As the van’s wheels began to roll, I began to wave. “Winkie, Winkie!” I said to no one. My wave continued until the boys had turned from the driveway into the street. And I could see, through the O.G.M.’s tinted windows, the span of Sam’s long, drummer’s arm waving back.

    A family tradition, this Winkie, Winkie business. My in-laws would stand in their driveway, side by side, waving to Mark and me — and then, later, Mark, the kids, and me — until we were out of sight. “Winkie, Winkie!” they’d shout. A German tradition, Mark explained early on, coming through his father, embraced by his mom. A kitschy farewell. A magical gesture to ensure safe travel, safe return. Sometimes, after my mother-in-law would gaily shout and even giggle, she’d lower one hand to brush away tears.

    No tears for me this morning, though it is not always so.  The beat coming from the van’s speakers reminded me to smile way down deep.  What will Sam remember from his last semester of college? A particularly good lecture? A well-written essay? Late-night carousing with friends and flame? Balancing the heft of a dining hall tray loaded with limitless sweet cereal and milk? Long after graduation, he’ll savor vivid memories of these drives between Boston and Ohio, fueled by Red Bull and tunes. The journey not the destination, the wise ones say. Expectations and a twinge of anxiety on the trip out. Exhaustion and a twinge of anxiety on the leg home at semester’s end.  And surely Winkie, Winkie, a sacred rite passed from generation to generation.

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  • I slowed my pace Saturday afternoon. I fell back to savor the view. Six long, suntanned legs in step, striding along a wide, dirt path. I wasn’t straining to hear the conversation, but I couldn’t help hearing the laughter. I just wanted to look.

    In my arms: Sam’s black trousers, rumpled white button down shirt, black belt, black tie, black socks, and dust-covered black shoes. It’d taken him a few trips into his cabin at camp to find everything he’d need to wear for the concert that night. I cradled the outfit, remembering trips to Macy’s and Target to secure each item, several of which have been pressed into service for years.

    A summer of firsts. This isn’t Sam’s first time at music camp.  It’s actually his fifth. But it’s the first time his sibs have been able to visit. Instead of going away on their own adventures, they’ve spent the summer close to home. Lily’s been working in a produce market. Max has been punching in at Economy Hardware and training for soccer. They’ve both been getting ready to apply to colleges (emphasis on the getting). Sam will take an extra year before he’s at this stage. He’s going to boarding school in September for another go at junior year before rushing headlong into college madness. While he finishes off music camp this week, Lily, Max, and I will visit colleges.

    Sam will leave home first. It’s a year earlier than I’d anticipated. I thought I was done with my grieving, having had my fill of middle-of-the night waking this past spring. I was wrong. It’s all right at the surface again, and I am mourning the loss of time with gifted, goofy Sam. But I’m not the only one grieving.  Lily and Max are having to figure out the letting-go themselves. “It’s like missing a piece of a puzzle,” Lily tells me.  “When we’re together, it’s like, ‘Ahh. Yeah.  There’s that missing piece.'” As with everything else in our family, things are complicated.  The celebrations.  The milestones. The losses. There are inevitable feelings of comparison and competition that are known to all families with children, but these are magnified exponentially with multiples. Who talked first?  Walked? Rode a bike? Started dating? And now: the first to leave home?

    The competition evaporated — at least for a little while Saturday — as the three fell in together.  I wanted to stand right next to Sam and hear the full report. But instead, I hung back. I marveled at the three sets of long legs with the same intensity that I counted toes after their birth. I thought about the almost 18 years of work Mark and I have done to create a family where these three can delight in such close connection and also claim what each needs and knows.  I loved.

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  • Back in Brookline, missing the hell out of the beach, and the kids started 11th grade today. President Obama gave a great speech to the nation’s school children. Everybody’s got homework already.  I hope they work hard and find much of their study meaningful.  Is that too much to ask?

    Along those lines, I share with you “A Learner’s Bill of Rights,” a brilliantly articulated manifesto that Kirsten Olson uses to begin her new book, Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture (New York and London: Teachers College Press, 2009). Olson’s ideas and feelings are passionate and ring true.  If kids have the wobbles in these early days of the school year, share with them the following:

    A Learner’s Bill of Rights

    by

    Kirsten Olson

    Every learner has the right to know why they are learning something, why it is important now, or may be important to them someday.

    Every learner has the right to engage in questioning or interrogating the idea of “importance” above.

    Every learner has the right to be confused and to express this confusion openly, honestly, and without shame.

    Every learner has the right to multiple paths to understanding a concept, an idea, a set of facts, or a series of constructs.

    Every learner has a right to understand his or her own mind, brain wiring, and intellectual inclinations as completely as possible.

    Every learner has the right to interrogate and question the means through which his or her learning is assessed.

    Every learner is entitled to some privacy in their imagination and thoughts.

    Every learner has the right to take their imagining and thinking seriously.

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