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School's In Session - Spotting the Freshmen

In a few short weeks, the class of 2015 will disappear to become just part of the crowd.

Just before we admit that, by any definition of calendar or weather, summer is over, there's a family game we haul out of storage for a few days at this time of year. Seek out a place with a lot of foot traffic, and prepare to people watch.

For the players, driving is better than walking, because in the privacy of your car you can shout it out: It's called Freshmen Spotting.

You already know the rules: First, look for a cluster of young adults. Intent on their conversations, they're walking somewhat closely together, the better not to lose one's way in strange territory. They clutch not packages and shopping bags, but notebooks and backpacks. Matching T-shirts are a dead giveaway, of course. And like the best tourists, they eagerly take in what's around them, and may be seen looking skyward.

We were crawling down Mass. Ave. recently, mini-vanning our way to Target or Home Depot. I reminded my family about this special time of year; just after Boston's annual test of driver patience, September 1. (How many U-Hauls and moving trucks were on your street?)

It's a time of new beginnings and a return to routine. Tens of thousands of students are back in town.

"Look!" I say. "There are some!" My seven-year-old shouts and points, with much enthusiasm, "Freshmen!" "Freshmen!" My husband never trusts us while we're playing this cheeky game. He doesn't believe we're not trying to ridicule the newbies. "We're not making fun of anybody," I say. "We're just looking for them."

I chalk up his unease to being in their position years ago, perhaps the butt of too many fresh jokes. Even my older daughter invokes the golden rule, imagining herself in the uncomfortable shoes of the watched. But even if you don't have children going back to school, we Bostonians all readjust to school-year life here, with its busier restaurants and more-crowded sidewalks.

I envy every Hub newcomer who's just starting out on this foray into adulthood. Our family lives so close to my own old stomping grounds, that in one mile, three decades, and the blink of an eye, I've gone from dorm life with 1,600 underclassmen, an escalator, and three elevators, to climbing three flights of stairs in a brownstone, three children in tow. I have friends from college who have just dropped off a child at that very dorm.

But I also have (clean!) diapers in a bag somewhere in the condo that are still new enough for some other family's precious baby tushie. When this time warp jars me a little every September, I want to shake every pair of 18-year-old shoulders I see and cry, "youth is wasted on the young!" 

We started playing this game last year, when my then-first-grader was herself about to start a new school. She left behind the friends, classroom, and teacher that had nurtured her from preschool ABCs to reading on her own. Learning how to spot the newest kids in town – though they are older than she is by more than a decade – was a very small, subtle way to empower her in a time of uncertainty. A keen observer in her own right, she used Freshmen Spotting as another tool for organizing and understanding her world, when she was not yet sure that new friends, good times, and inspiring teachers were just around the corner.    

When this child of mine is ready for college herself one day, with so many great choices so close to home, where will she go? Last year, this girl still believed that she'd live with mom and dad forever, and happily at that. Last week, she added a caveat. Maybe it would be OK if mom and dad weren't right here, parents sharing her space. It would be OK if we left. But, she is keeping the house.

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