August 31, 2017

Freshman Move-In Day: Why it sucks for all


An artist’s rendering of incoming college students as they appeared at the dawn of history.

“Move-in Day” is the term used to describe an obscure national rite of passage that is loathed by all and sundry. Each year on this occasion, hundreds of thousands of American parents transport and then deposit their cantankerous offspring at a college campus. Move-In Day—for reasons that have long baffled meteorologists, statisticians, and chaos theorists alike—always takes place on the hottest August afternoon of the decade.

The Happening of which I speak strikes college administrators, too, with abject terror. Their lolling, Frisbee-swept quads and tree-lined pathways lack the requisite infrastructure to handle what comes their way. And what comes their way is an unruly tank division of SUVs whose drivers abandoned all regard for road safety and human decency on the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The owners of these conveyances seem hell-bent on docking their massive rigs anywhere they see fit. They park on the gravesite of our school’s Founder. Some station their vehicles in the Gazebo where Ulysses S. Grant proposed to his wife. Others alight from minivans that rest on the Campus Compost Heap, the centerpiece of the English department’s 2017 sustainability initiative.

The Professors, for their part, peek through the blinds of their apartment windows and glumly assess the campus commotion. It should be pointed out, however, that the commotion they are observing does not occur on their own campus. They actually live near a different campus, in a different state. Only independently wealthy scholars can afford to live near their own schools. Only masochists actually want to. Be that as it may, Move-In Day reminds scholars that, yes, the summer has passed. And, no, Chapter Three is not finished. Nor is Chapter Two, come to think of it.

For students, Move-In Day can’t possibly end soon enough. A fifteen-minute ride to the local CVS with a parent in tow is agony enough. But this shit? Six hours in a mammoth Chevrolet Traverse shorn of natural light by overstuffed milk crates lining the windows: Dad’s repeated allusions to “good decisions”: Rehashing that whole unfortunate incident with the DEA that took place the week after prom: The endlessly looping Hootie and the Blowfish soundtrack.

All of which reminds us of Move-In Day’s driving narrative theme: emotional asymmetry. For an eighteen-year-old, the occasion marks a euphoric beginning, an open road whose horizon looks like a bunch of multicolored, dancing musical notes in a Disney movie, an escape that’s been planned for years.

For parents, by contrast, Move-In Day imparts the not entirely unconscious recognition that childhood is officially over. As Dad watches his daughter accelerating away from him (with a few thousand dollars of Bed, Bath and Beyond amenities in a pushcart), he remembers the precise moment she was born. Inexplicably, he heard a ticking clock in his head. He always knew it was a countdown of sorts, but never dared to think about what it meant. Now the ticking is back and it just got louder.

Mom (who majored, long ago, in Comp Lit) grumbles to Dad, “It’s August all right,” as he navigates their minivan down from the Sustainability Pavilion and embarks upon the shorter and quieter ride home.



Jacques Berlinerblau teaches at Georgetown University, has written many books, and is an editor for the journal Philip Roth Studies. His newest book, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students was published by Melville House in June 2017. Follow him on Twitter!