Today I discovered the campus webcam.
Apparently there is a video camera that provides continuous, 24/7, real-time images of the center of my son’s college campus.
I immediately texted my son to inform him of my discovery. He did not seem impressed. His text back to me read,
“Mom don’t you have better things to do with your time?”
Surely I do have many very important things to do with my time. I have deadlines to meet, a home to run, pets that require my care. My son’s younger sister still lives here, so I guess I’m not quite finished with my child-rearing responsibilities.
And yet, I find it hard not to watch that webcam. Its mere existence is a siren call. The possibility that I might catch a glimpse of my son passing by on his way to class, or a meal, or to retrieve his mail, floods my brain with expectation and my heart with hope. Viewing that webcam is an impulse almost as difficult to control as I would imagine placing the next wager is for the gambler at the blackjack table.
I’ll admit I have surveilled my son before. When he started kindergarten I would sometimes drive by his new school during his recess, just to catch a glimpse of him on the playground. I wanted to know if he was wearing his jacket, if he was playing with the other children, if he seemed happy. I needed to see for myself that my son was doing fine without me.
As our children grow older the opportunities to observe them in the places they inhabit when they are not with us, most commonly their schools, become few and far between. While the elementary school welcomes us with offers to shelve dusty books during library time, or to wipe down glue covered desks after leading an “art appreciation” exercise, the high school is more like Fort Knox. I have literally been interrogated and practically patted down just attempting to drop off a forgotten lunch. Now comfortably ensconced in a college hundreds of miles away from home, there is certainly no expectation that I will be involved in my son’s academic or social life.
Also, as our children become young adults there is the nagging suspicion that they are very different people when we parents are not around. Is my daughter this quiet and pensive when she is with her friends? Is my son an easy-going rule follower when left to his own devices? I have wished countless times that I could be a fly on the wall and observe my children when they are not with me.
I think I understand now why, when I was a young girl, I would sometimes catch sight of my mom following a distance behind as I walked to school with my friends. I had always assumed she was concerned for my safety, and surely this was one reason for her vigilance. But I realize she also just wanted to observe a segment of my life she was not inherently a part of.
That is the simple perfection of the campus webcam. And probably accounts for why so many people love watching them. For two months people around the world were spellbound by the webcam live-stream of April the Giraffe as she prepared to give birth to her baby boy. According to Google, April’s stream received over 232 million live views, which added up to 7.6 billion minutes of live watch-time
Webcams offer access, even if that access is limited. We can feel just a little more in touch, slightly more involved despite the miles that separate us. It’s a faux intimacy that is somehow as alluring as it is artificial.
Intuitively I know chances are slim that I will actually catch sight of my son walking past that camera at the exact moment I am viewing its live stream. Yet when I watch the campus webcam I feel closer to him. I feel the pulse of his campus, the ebb and flow of life on those paths and streets I see. Even just knowing the weather where he is makes me feel more a part of his world.
And if by chance I should catch a glimpse of my son, I will of course check to make sure he is wearing his jacket. I’ll pray he’s doing fine without me. And I will send him all my love across the miles and through that video stream.