Roads Taken and Not Taken: Alex Shala '07
The Los Angeles-based "recovering lawyer" writes about when his parents first dropped him off at Haverford College, a moment that served as the inspiration for his debut novel, Lying To Children.
I vividly remember the day my parents abandoned me at Haverford College. My arrival at Haverford involved a 1,300 mile drive with them from our home in Baton Rouge, La. It was only a three-day journey, but it felt like The Lord of the Rings—all three books. In retrospect, it would have been better to fly, but there’s always a silver lining and in this case it’s that when you’re 18, spending three days in a car with your parents is enough “quality time” to last for years.
After our adventure, we said our farewells and my parents dropped me off at the side entrance to Barclay. As they started to drive away, I remember thinking, “What? That’s it? Shouldn’t you at least get somebody to sign for the delivery?” It seemed like such an underwhelming moment for what was possibly the most important event in my life to that point. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was being bombarded by all the bittersweet emo- tions I should have felt months earlier (but was too focused on my impend- ing break for freedom to recognize). Naturally, I called my parents minutes after their exodus and voiced my dis- pleasure. I’m pretty sure this encouraged them to drive faster.
With their departure, I was scared, nervous, uncertain about what lay ahead. However, any questions I had were quickly answered by my Customs People— two college sophomores by the names of Whitey and Flanders. I knew when I met them that gone were the days of being tucked in and kissed goodnight. But much to the credit of Whitey and Flanders, they were the perfect surrogate parents—especially for college freshmen who lived on diets of cheesesteaks, pizza, and chicken wings.
My four years at Haverford flew by. During my time there, I went to music and improv shows in Lunt Basement. Watched, but didn’t understand, rugby games. Attended—and survived— Haverfest. Majored in Classics. Tried and failed to understand the different split-level floors in Gummere. Ventured off campus to take in all the Main Line had to offer—in particular, one hibachi restaurant that closed its doors after my friends and I graduated. (Coincidence? I think not!)
My parents’ departure was the end of an era: my childhood. I was lucky I had Haverford College waiting for me afterward. There, I formed friendships that have lasted to this day, and built the confidence and skills needed to conquer any professional task, including surviving law school, and even becoming a novelist.
Looking back on it now, years later, the moment I am still struck by most is when I watched my parents’ Louisiana license plate disappear in the distance. It was actually that moment at Haverford that the seed was planted for my first book, an epistolary novel titled Lying to Children. The story comes from my general nostalgia for home and the emotions I felt during that adjustment to college life. It is told from the perspective of a father who is coming to terms with his daughter and son departing for college. He is writing the book to—and for—them and recounts stories, large and small, from their childhoods.
The father is the typical suburban dad. He likes Nerf guns. He drives a minivan. He has a particular affinity for cookies. His children are his life and their leaving is difficult for him. Luckily, he does not have to endure it alone; he is joined by his wife. His companion. His conscience. At times, she’s the only thing keeping him from breaking down as he struggles to say goodbye. At its core, the book is a father’s love letter to his children—his method of coping with his children’s departure.
Each year, millions of kids enroll in college. Many leave home; some don’t. But for all, it presents a difficult transition. I know it was for me. My book is dedicated to my parents, and although the stories in it are entirely fictional, the emotions are real. When writing it, I drew from what I felt many years ago on Barclay lawn, as I watched my parents drive away.