commencement

Ceremony PresentationAnother May. Collared shirts, once under polyester sport coats and now under polyester regalia, too hot. Lawn parties, everyone trying to say things all at once they thought they’d have a lot longer to say but now the car is idling, time to go. That sickening feeling of dislocation: everything is changing, right now, packing boxes in rooms you’ve lived in for months that feel like years.

I much prefer August, when we’re all arriving. Oh, much. New backpacks and books; move-in day and iffy parking with hazards blinking; orientations and (f)acebooks and mixers and assemblies. But we don’t get to choose where we are on the gyre, and right now we’re here.

Right now’s all about endings, whatever we call it. I am a fit for the university in a thousand ways, but not this one. I chafe in the short half-life of the college classroom. I chafe at packing up and ending just when we are learning each other’s names, just when it is starting to get good. I am much better fit for the year-long story of middle and high school, or preferably the multi-year arc. The one where we meet when you’re thirteen and can’t find your head with both hands or even know you have one, and we say good bye when you’re eighteen and brilliant and cocky and ready to eat the world, and proceed to do just that as I track your dazzling arc on (F)acebook for the rest of our lives.

I’ve begun asking my education students to write a letter to themselves five years hence, where they remind that early-career teacher what they thought mattered most when they were sophomores. It’s a hedge against the semester thundering to a close, a flail at the future that’s coming no matter how we feel about it. Like all time capsules, it’s an insistence that our relation to time is other than it is, and that who we are now will somehow stay. I rubberband them and archive them carefully in my office, with the send-by date affixed on a Post-It. And when the appointed year rolls around, I spring for postage – I’m a professor after all, I make the big bucks.

It’s a satisfying exercise for me, a fitting close to a semester’s work. It almost transcends the fifteen-week cage we work in, almost reaches into the future as resolutely as our multiple autobiographical reflections helps us reach into the past. It’s smart and defensible practice, this corralling and commanding of time. But really, it is the only way I can dig in my heels.

Because I want to, I need to. Because time moves so fast now. When I was in college, a week was a month, and a year was nearly a lifetime. Now, the semesters race by. Starting in the cold and ending in the heat, then starting in the sun and ending in the snow, round and round. I can barely track the passage of time by which jacket I am wearing. Maybe this acceleration as we age empowers our teaching: since we grownups know just how fast things go, maybe we’re more empowered to advise our students what to attend to and what to notice.

I don’t like where this story is heading, though, time speeding up like a Charlie Chaplin assembly line. Maybe when I’m older I’ll wish for these years when things seemed comparably manageable and breathable. (Does it slow down again, later? If we get a later?) Maybe the pain of ending makes precious the time we have. Maybe it pushes us forward, and even back, so we will more fully know what we know, and rejoice in it. (David Rakoff gives this valediction, forbidding mourning, so much more beautifully than I could, here.)

What’s clear is that I’m not getting better at endings. I’m probably getting worse. This week will be full of joy and sadness as I wear itchy clothes with my colleagues, sit in rows, and watch another class cross another stage, out of our lives and into theirs. Writing about this always stinks, because there’s only one thing to say: good bye, thank you, good luck.

August offers so much more. Hello. Welcome. Who are you?

I can’t wait. See you then.

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