14-year-old off to boarding school

While many parents are still kissing their young teens goodnight and tucking them into bed beside a well-worn stuffed animal, Blaise and I opted to send 14-year-old Erin to St. Lawrence Seminary, a boarding school located in Mt. Calvary in Fond du Lac County.

At first, when Erin came to us and mentioned that he was interested in becoming a priest, and wanted to go to a different school for high school, we were stymied. While we have Catholic high schools near us, none of them seemed as if they would allow Erin the freedom to explore and discern God’s call upon his life unencumbered by outside influence.

After mentioning our situation to a friend, Sam, he suggested we look into St. Lawrence as an option. Both his sons graduated from the school and while neither discerned the priesthood as his vocation, he spoke so highly of the school, we decided to inquire.

Not long after our inquiry, a DVD and large colorful brochure arrived in our mailbox. The school seemed to be just what Erin might be looking for, but I figured that after Erin realized that he would have to live on the premises, he would not be interested.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. After watching the DVD and reading the material, he said, “When can we go there to check it out?”

Shortly after the informational packet arrived, we received a call from the school inviting us to a casual meeting with other interested families at the home of an SLS student in Kenosha.

First impressions positive

We went and were impressed by the students who spoke to us about the school. The young men were polite, made eye contact, held doors open for us and were eager to answer all of our questions.

The next step was the seventh grade “Day of Discovery” that included attending Mass, touring the campus, attending a play and meeting students and staff. Again, we were all impressed.

When Erin was an eighth grader, admissions coordinator Kenneth F. Maciejewski came to our home and brought Erin to SLS for a four-day weekend to shadow current students, take some pre-admittance tests, and learn what it was like to eat, sleep and live with other young men.

The parents arrived on Saturday to attend their own informational sessions, to discuss finances, their son’s test results and to meet with students, staff and their families. On the drive to the school, Blaise warned me, “Now don’t be surprised if Erin is very clingy and will be feeling homesick because this is the first time he’s been gone this long.” I agreed and knew that since we were closely knit that most likely Erin would want to spend all of his time with us and probably decide against going to the school.

Yeah, right.

After a two-second hug, Erin said, “This is a great place; do you mind if I go play ping-pong with my friend Phillip?” and took off sprinting for the recreation area.

We stood there with our mouths hanging open.

The next day, and not more than 1,000 feet out of the SLS driveway on our way home, Erin piped from the back seat, “When can I go back? I love it there.”

No matter what it took, we realized that if God was calling our son to a seminary high school, he would open the doors for him to attend, and we would do all we could from our end.

School promises to be affordable for all

Private schools are expensive and we are not affluent. However, the 150-year St. Lawrence reputation for fine Catholic education has left the school with many benefactors and funds to cover a substantial portion of the tuition costs. Additionally, parents are urged to apply for private school financial aid to further reduce costs. In the end, with some assistance from our parish, attending St. Lawrence was affordable. Their motto is, “No student has ever been turned away due to inability to pay,” and they mean it.

Well-meaning but painful remarks

While we adapted to the concept of Erin moving away, family members and others did not seem to understand. Aside from our very supportive parish family, comments from the outside world were as varied as the personalities that offered them.

“A boarding school? What did he do wrong?”

“Are you tired of being parents?”

“Don’t you want him around?”

“Aren’t there Catholic schools nearby?”

“We would miss our son; it is too bad you won’t miss yours.”

Ouch. Many of the remarks, while generally well meaning, were painful. Throughout the two-year discernment process, we continued to query Erin if he was serious about going. We didn’t want this to be our decision, but his.

Although he was excited to go, he was concerned for us, especially Blaise, who is recently disabled. We have come to rely on Erin for help around the house.

“Who will do the lawn if I am gone?” he wondered aloud. “It will cost too much. What if Pops needs me to lift something heavy and I am not here? Who will take out the garbage?”

Part of me wanted to say, “Yes, yes! You are needed here and you need to stay with us.” But I took a deep breath and assured him that we would be fine. A friend would take over the yard work and I could do the heavy lifting and take out the trash.

Mom’s worries continue

In the days that preceded the Aug. 22 registration day, my mind was rampant with thoughts. I wondered if he would miss us, would feel abandoned or get homesick. Would he make friends? Who would he talk to during tough times? Who would help him with his homework? Will he still want to become a priest? Will we still be needed?

Neither Blaise nor I slept the night before – we missed him already, worried that the new clothes we bought for him wouldn’t fit, as he seemed to be growing in front of our eyes. No longer is he the smallest child in the family; he has surpassed both his older brothers. We wondered if Erin would miss our nightly routines of home movies, hugs, popcorn and games. Did we cram in enough activities during the summer to make up for his absence during the year? Time really played tricks on us – wasn’t it just June the other day?

Registration day went fast, after signing all of the forms, and meeting with the school nurse and staff members, we moved him into Cubicle 17, his home for part of his first year. Our meeting with Fr. Druggan offered a lighthearted view of homesickness from a rector who has watched hundreds of boys transform during his tenure at the school.

“In 150 years of this school, no one has ever died of homesickness,” he said, and Erin laughed. “The best thing you can do when you see another freshman feeling sad is to stay away from him and go find one who seems happy. If you don’t, then there will be a whole bunch of sad, homesick kids clustered together and that is not good for anyone.”

Saying a difficult good-bye

At 3:30, we said our goodbyes to Erin, who suddenly seemed very small and very young. I studied this boy who I used to pry off statues of the Blessed Mother when he was 2, the same one who used to run up onto the altar during Mass and suddenly I realized that he never belonged to me. He belonged to Christ and I was returning him to be molded into the man God wants him to be. After what seemed hours, we finally turned our backs and got into the car. Slowly descending the steep driveway of the St. Lawrence Hilltop, the tears began to flow.

“Are you sure we did the right thing?” I questioned Blaise.

“I hope so,” he said, brushing at the corners of his eyes. “I pray so.”

The next day was strangely quiet. I looked around the house, which suddenly seemed much larger.

“Well, what do we do now?” I questioned Blaise.

Transition went well

Weeks later, we have made the transition. At first it was difficult finding times to call Erin when he wasn’t involved with classes, cross country, study hall or astronomy club, but after a few miscues, we entered into a routine of every-other-day phone calls.

“It is hard here, but I like it,” Erin announced. “The kids are great, the teachers are pretty good, but I do miss you.”

“Whew!” he misses us, I smiled to myself. “Thank God.”

The first Sunday Blaise and I drove to St. Lawrence for Mass and to take Erin out for the day. My eyes welled with tears during Mass as I realized what my friend Sam meant when he said I would be proud to hear my son sing with the other boys and that sending him to boarding school would make sense to me then.

Already he seemed more self-confident and independent. And grateful. Not that he wasn’t grateful before, but he seemed to appreciate more of the things we had done and were doing for him, almost as if he were peering at us through a different set of eyes.

Yes, his course load of biology, Latin, religion, English, geometry, liturgy, guidance, keyboarding, chorus, history and physical education is a hefty one, but he seems to be adapting well. More importantly, he is learning what it means to be a Catholic young man, and that is the greatest lesson of all.

“No, Fr. Dennis – I guess I don’t need the socks.”