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Illustration by Adam De Souza

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person explores the challenges of going back to school.

Remember the time the Hutterites brought me home from that party? My sister throws this out on the way to dinner. My Calgary family’s eyes pop open. This is how we Saskatchewan girls roll. She, and I, and our dad, have a million of these conversational gems. They are most often said among ourselves with nods of understanding, but are known to generate bewildered looks from those less prairie-inclined.

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I recount this story to my son as we embark on a prairie roadie from our home in Calgary to Saskatoon. He starts at the University of Saskatchewan in six short days. He moves into residence tomorrow. This is my school and I’m thrilled. And I’m sad. And I’m anxious. And I’m amazed that we are here already. But mostly, I’m thrilled. Mostly.

As we drive, I tell him a million stories about growing up in a small town on the prairies. Maybe I should do some editing, but he is sixth-generation Saskatchewanian. Our guys arrived before the railroad, for Pete’s sake. He needs to know how things work in this part of the world.

It’s time I taught myself how to make Dad’s chowder

We drive through brilliant blue skies and yellow fields awaiting combines. I see cars parked in approaches and think about the conversations in the local coffee shops and Co-ops. Done harvest? Purt’ near.

I hope my boy learns to love this province as I do. He’s grown up in a cool downtown Calgary neighbourhood, spent some years at private school, basically lived in a bubble of privilege, but I hope he’s absorbed some prairie pragmatism. Pitch in. Pay your bills. Be good to your neighbours. Don’t be a jackass (or worse, a horse’s ass). Pretension will get you some major side eye at a party – to say nothing of what will happen if you arrive empty-handed or, God forbid, refuse to share your beer.

Saskatoon has grown up since I lived here. We check into a swishy downtown hotel. A suite on a high floor affords a view of the sparkling Saskatchewan River, and across it, the university. Sophisticated hotel, salt-of-the-earth service. The prairie spirit is here. I’m feeling good about this. Maybe my people will take care of this kid.

We’re at the university bright and early. This beautiful place. For me, it was love at first sight, and it endures. Established early in the 20th century, the University of Saskatchewan boasts gorgeous gothic Greystone buildings surrounding a central bowl. It’s exactly what you would want and expect a university campus to look like. Every corner evokes a memory, every hallway an echo of laughter and shenanigans. Do the kids still have as much fun as we did? I know the 20,000 students here are receiving an excellent education. I hope they are building lifelong memories and friendships as well. My son’s dorm is in the old law school. As we move his belongings up to his room, we can feel grooves in the stone steps left by generations of students who’ve gone before.

He’s sucked into campus life immediately. The dorm is full of small-town Saskatchewan kids and a fair few from Calgary. Events are planned starting this very day. I manage to explain the recipe for Yuk-a-flux (a university tradition known to students from Winnipeg and west) before becoming an aged impediment to his social life. The momentous emotional moment I expected and feared doesn’t happen. He’s happy and excited to be here. It rubs off on me. I leave feeling a little weepy, but mostly excited. Mostly. I also know I’ll be back in a week for my class reunion. So there’s that.

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A short week later, I’m back and can hardly wait to check in with the kid. He’s busy with welcome week, erm, activities, but I tempt him with a plate of perogies at a restaurant near my hotel. It’s all good. He loves the university and his residence. Despite the perogies, he’s eager to get back to a students’ meeting for ever more engineering antics. This night, as on our earlier reconnaissance visits, the Saskatoonians we encounter, almost to a person, seem equally excited to hear he’ll be new to the city and new to the university. He gets a verbal clap on the back and welcome from almost everyone he encounters. I see him beam a little each time. He feels at home. I knew my people would come through.

My reunion kicks off with a Huskies football game. I kidded the boy that he won’t see me if I see him first. Most likely, it will be the other way around. In fact, this adventure comes full circle (literally) as I watch the blur of my toga-clad son pass by in the traditional residence halftime run around the track. In the reunion party tent, we cheer for him wildly and put to good use the megaphones provided by the alumni organizers. The reunion is a riot. I feel 18 again. I can’t help but think about my son, tucked in among the residence crowd. I hope the people he’s sitting with now, who helped tie his toga and paint his face green, will become the treasured friends that he sits with at his future reunions.

I see the boy once more before I leave. We’ve both had a great weekend. A final wander around campus is filled with reminiscence for me and anticipation for him. I win some kind of bad mom award by recounting the story of how, in my day, engineering students kidnapped an arch-nemesis agriculture student, painted him gold and placed him in their trophy case with a mickey and a case of beer. I am certain that doesn’t happen any more. My kiddo loves it, and we share a good laugh. I leave knowing we’ll miss our boy in Calgary, but also that he’s where he belongs. Now as long as he doesn’t actually make the Yuk-a-flux.

Deidre Horn lives in Calgary.

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