I must have looked like a creep that day, hiding behind a tree and eavesdropping on a private moment.

But there I was, standing between Crawford Residence Hall and a cottonwood tree trying to make myself as skinny as I could be (which is NOT easy) and make mental notes on this scene.

This was roughly 15 years ago, but I remember it pretty well. A father in a gray flannel shirt and faded jeans. A son in a ball cap and cargo shorts. A mom standing intentionally a few feet away. I was too far away to hear their conversation, but I didn’t have to. I knew what I was watching. This was a goodbye.

Two men. Neither of them good at this kind of thing. Hands in pockets. Until … they removed those hands for an awkward embrace, an embrace they held longer than I thought they would. A smile. A nervous laugh. Mom chimes in. All wave. And then junior trots away, off to start the next chapter in the book of his life.

Eyes wet, I pretended to be taking notes. I say “pretended” because I didn’t need any notes. Everything I saw was burned into my head and heart.

I was there to write a story for the paper about move-in day at Minnesota State University. In a career that has spanned roughly 25 years, there are some moments that just stand out. While it may seem subtle, this one, for me, stood out.

As I’m writing this, things are a tad heavy around here. My youngest just walked out the door for his last day of high school. In less than 48 hours, I won’t have a high schooler any more. I’ll have a graduate. This little fella who first went to “Grandma Pat’s” day care, then to Jesus Loves Me Learning Center, then Monroe Elementary, then Garfield, then Dakota Meadows Middle School, and finally Mankato West High School, is now … just done with it.

I drive by Monroe several times each day. The other day I saw all the kids outside for their annual spring “field day,” where they spend most of the day outside playing games, running races, screaming as loud as they want. When my kids were there, I think I was a parent volunteer at just about every field day. There were T-ball practices and baseball games on these fields.

Over at the Garfield playground, I see the monkey bars where Sam took a nasty fall and broke his arm. Still has the scar on his wrist where Dr. Swanson inserted a small pin to hold the pieces of Sam’s bones together.

At Dakota Meadows, where I still have a meeting every month, I walk through those doors and remember the frequent (unnecessary) trips to bring books or shoes or whatever else he forgot; the very nice ladies at in the DMMS offices became quite accustomed to me showing up around noon to drop something off or sign some important slip.

At West, I’ve been in that band room as much as any parent. In the auditorium, I’ve watched him from the balcony, watched him from the front row. I’ve never missed a concert.

For so much of what was memorable and amazing about children’s lives, the foundation or setting always seems to be a school. I like that.

I say all this because I know there are parents out there feeling the same way. For every Robb who drives by Monroe, there was a Bill or John or Tammy or Sue driving by Hoover, Jefferson, Kennedy and Rosa Parks schools this week having the same thoughts. We never thought when our kids were in elementary school that we’d blink and be on the verge of watching them graduate. It’s sad … yet exciting. There’s so, so much to look forward to. They’ll change the world, for sure. Maybe even save it. But first, tears.

Moments before I sat down to write this, we scrambled to throw together all the things Sam needed to return to school today.

“Do you have your Chromebook?” I asked.

“Uhhh … Yeeah, I need my Chromebook case and power cord.”

“OK,” I say. “What about your tux (for band)?”

“Oh, crap,” he says. I should have done all this last night,” he says, but that would have been impossible because he was busy beginning and finishing a final project for Spanish. He should major in procrastination in college!

“What about those library books we got that email about?”

“Oh yeah …”

We look, but come up empty. (Sorry Mr. Weichert! We’ll pay for that!)

Then, with everything he needs for his last day in his car or his bag — saxophone, textbooks, tux, etc. — he goes to leave. I follow him to the door, thinking I should say something deep and meaningful as he leaves.

“Have a good last day of school, bud,” I say.

Then he turns to me. And what happened next would have been clear to anyone, even someone watching from across the road.

Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or rmurray@mankatofreepress.com. Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb

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