What is it about graduation and the end of the school year that strikes me as so sad? It is a feeling that seems, at times, like the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano: annual, dependable, predictable. Perhaps it is the simple fact that most of us, when our respective commencement ceremonies come rolling around from May to June, are frankly exhausted, delirious, usually sick with early summer colds, buried under a mound of grading. But I think there is also something else there, a wistful nostalgia, a brief moment when our students mirror ourselves in strange, unexpected ways. Except, unlike our students, we know how the subsequent acts may play out.
This vibration of bittersweet memory and identification is highly variable. Some years, I have turned on my heel and walked into summer with nary a glance backward. Good riddance to bad rubbish! But for others, the moment is laden with meaning and memory. Graduations of course are institutional moments of high-flying, bloated, and hyperbolic rhetoric about potential laid out before a group of mostly hung-over, soon-to-be ex-undergraduates, as their assorted families witness the blood libel, crabby and sartorially diverse, kibitzing in scopophilic awe, cameras flashing over Ann Taylor and Dress Barn, Brooks Brothers and JC Penney.
The ceremonial aspects of the graduation ceremony are familiar to most faculty members, for this is not our first time at the rodeo, and we’ve donned these robes, hot and itchy and uncomfortable, before. But graduation is one of the few moments when the institution must reveal itself to the outside world, and for what it’s worth, most schools try to make the most of it, parading about in medieval squalor. Pageantry and polyester and ridiculous maces and inspirational speakers with their self-evident messages, as well as the seemingly endless drone of names and degrees, can make most graduation ceremonies seem like waterboarding.
The range of ceremonies can also be rather telling. From the intimate leafy venues of the baccalaureate college, with well-dressed parents and buffet tables heavy with shrimp and tropical fruit laid out under tents, to mass ceremonies held in civic auditoriums devoid of natural light, not to mention coffee, they all have in common a certain pomposity that I suppose is necessary, a symbolic reference to the value of the degree, of the work, of the intellectual journey. But these material differences also speak to the ways in which different degrees from different institutions circulate in the world beyond the university.
For many of us, not from the landed gentry but allowed, begrudgingly, to participate on the margins, graduation was more like an expulsion than a celebration, the end of a particular dream state. As the last of the balloons fell and non-unionized employees were sweeping up the assorted debris, some of us woke with a start, as if from a bad dream. What before had been student collegiality, a collective of meritocracy, becomes in an instant rather material, when we realize we aren’t going to Europe for our gap year before Yale Law, or we shan’t be taking that job at McKinsey, or doing a nifty unsalaried internship at MOMA. My own graduation had this tenor rather strongly, in the chilling realization that I had no plan, had been given no plan, and needed to find a job, fast. I may not have had a plan, but I had acquired a rather high-toned accent, and soon found myself answering phones three thousand miles away from the dreaming spires.
Of course, now, years later, some of the bitter in the sweet is the memory of this recognition that college did not foreclose the real, economic world we are grounded in, but rather, at least in my case, just offered a respite from it, the sweet illusion of privilege. Those of us with stronger training and direction, better mentorship, voraciously educated or careerist parents, knew this fact, of course, and planned, like the proverbial summer squirrel, for winter: kissing ass, working hard with an eye towards graduate or professional school, lining up references, investing in a Brooks Brothers suit. The crickets, who played all summer, who sang their beautiful song, who took the intellectual curiosity bit about undergraduate liberal-arts curricula seriously, came to the chilling recognition that assailing that peak only led into a deeper, darker forest, usually about the same time one’s polyester gown was returned and the school chums drove off to board a flight to Paris at JFK. We, who had sung our beautiful songs, were left with the unenviable task of bushwhacking without a compass.
This year, at the conclusion of my capstone course, I wrote a somewhat sentimental email to my senior students, which said, in part:
For most of you too, this is also the end of your senior year and thus your collegiate career, which is a powerful moment in your lives, although at this point you most likely feel more overwhelmed and tired. I know I did as my senior year crashed to an end. But as you enjoy the last of your time in college, and embark on, well, really, the rest of your lives, you are not now in a position to appreciate what [Prestigious Lil’ College] has given you, and will continue to give you, in your formation as individuals, citizens, and intellectuals. You will come to appreciate in different ways, more finely and perhaps also more fiercely, the depth of your collegiate career at [PLC], depths which in my own experience become sharper not duller, more meaningful, as the years go by.
The metaphor gets wobbly at the end, as I dashed this off before heading home to grade essays, but the message speaks to my own experience of graduation as a marker of experience, a moment of ambivalent change that can only be understood later, with more distance. A sharp depth, however, seems more profound, speaks more to what I really wanted to tell my students, than a deeper depth, although of course that is also implicit. Because for me, graduation is sharp, the cutting edge of a blade, one of several distinct instants in my life of before and after, a dropping off into dark water.
And perhaps this is why the end of the year is somewhat sad for me, not only because on occasion we are saying goodbye to talented students we have come to appreciate, but also because we know that the future often does not play out like a commencement speech. In our students’ faces we see the hope and exhaustion we also felt, long ago, on an early summer morning, we see ourselves written quite strongly there. But some of us also see and remember the forest, the instant we realized we were profoundly lost, and worry and wonder about the journey through it, for our students, and indeed still for ourselves.