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Graduation

Our youngest child graduates from high school this week. We should be ready; we’ve been through this milestone twice before. This time, though, it’s different. There isn’t a younger sibling waiting in the wings, demanding our attention, or needing our care. This year of senior events was truly the last.

A fellow parent, looking equally lost at Senior Tea, mentioned that he had told his son to hang out with his friends every minute, because “this is it.” I started to argue the point, but I knew he was right. Even though classmates get together the first few years after high school, the group dwindles over time.

Our girl already has one foot out the door. When, “See you later, Mom!” is thrown over her shoulder as she runs out to the waiting car or I receive the text, “Going to get ice cream, be back in a bit,” the house feels empty. But I know this is exactly what she should be doing.

Our teens have been lucky, they have bucked the national norms simply by hanging out. A study found that teens who meet up with friends “almost every day” decreased from 50% in the 1990s to 25% today. I think about these statistics and am grateful that our kids are hanging out. I give partial credit to the high school in preserving the senior lounge. This small, frequently smelly, couch-filled room is the great equalizer, the bond builder between diverse groups. Elementary school friendships are rekindled, social groups merge and plans are made.

Their senior “prank” reflected this bonding. It was more of an inclusive bit of joy than a trick — a giant Slip-and-Slide set up on the front slope of the school. For one period on a hot day, the seniors exited classes and played like small children. They squealed, laughed and slid to the cheers of their less adventurous onlookers. These connections and memories were spawned in their school-provided “third space.”

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg began writing about “third spaces” in the late 1980s. His premise was that a complete life included three spaces: home, work/school and the third space, where a person could socialize and build community. Third spaces are gathering places filled with interactions with friends, acquaintances, or even strangers. While other activities may be involved, conversation and socialization are at the forefront. Importantly, third places are free or have only a small cost associated with them; they are available to everyone. It’s a concept that’s familiar, even if the term isn’t — think of shows like “Cheers” and “Friends,” or even the old phrase “work, church and home” — they celebrate the third space.

For many of our students, these spaces are seasonal. The school year brings sporting events, concerts and musicals to attend. Even play and sports practices fit the bill. The Saranac Lake Youth Center, sledding on North Country Hill and skating at the Saranac Lake Civic Center all offer free public places to socialize. In the summer ice cream stands, fishing spots, and swimming holes are popular. While we may not have the plethora of paid entertainment that other locales have, we have an abundance of accessible public gathering places. More populated areas have seen third spaces become privatized and expensive and, therefore, more exclusive. Nestled in the woods, our town still provides spaces to hang out at little or no cost. Our children have benefitted from this truth, but they don’t appreciate it yet.

Graduation is upon them, and by the end of summer, our kids will begin to scatter. Their friend groups will change, as will the places where they gather.

So, Senior Dad, you were right to urge your son to connect with his classmates, but what about us? How many of our third spaces were standing along the fence at baseball games, being stage parents at plays, or talking to other parents at school events?

As the kids rocket off into the next phase of their lives, we old folks will need to embark on a third space odyssey of our own.

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