By Patrick Vecchio
The 10 days between the end of classes and commencement is the most poignant time of the academic year. Thatâ€™s because commencement is the last time I will see the graduating seniors.
They have changed so much since I started working with them four years ago that it seems only their student ID numbers are still the same. When they arrived on campus, most of them were kids: 18, legally adults, but kids nonetheless, lugging anxiety or bravado like an overstuffed suitcase, unwilling or unable to advance those first conversations with faculty:
â€œWhy do you want to major in journalism/mass communications?â€
â€œI like to write.â€
â€œWhat was the last thing you wrote?â€
â€œDo you blog?â€
â€œBlog, keep a journal, a diary â€” anything like that.â€
â€œWhen was the last time you wrote something?â€
â€œI canâ€™t remember.â€
â€œWhat was the last book you read?â€
â€œSomething for English class, I think.â€
â€œWhere do you see yourself 10 years from now?â€
â€œWhat are you passionate about? What really turns you on, something you can see as being fun to do for a living?â€
(More silence, face glazed with uncertainty.)
So goes a typical conversation at orientation. I say â€œtypical,â€ but of course there are delightful exceptions, and what Iâ€™ve just described can be attributed as much to nervousness as to a lack of interest in whatâ€™s to come during the next four years.
Four years later, many of these once-uncommunicative kids are young men and women, and many of them have replaced anxiety with confidence. They realized university life was not a be-all, end-all, but rather was four years to get to better know their minds, get to better know their souls, and get ready for what follows. They will graduate with impressive rÃ©sumÃ©s, a long list of achievements and accomplishments, stellar evaluations and recommendations from top-notch internships, and the knowledge they are ready for whatâ€™s next.
Many of their classmates, though, are not ready for whatâ€™s next. They are being thrust from the cocoon of college, with its attendant structure and potentially limitless pleasure, into a world where they are going to have to create their own structure and limit their pleasure. They are going to have to make their own ways. If they had their ways, college would never end â€” or at least theyâ€™d be able to come back in the fall as â€œsuper seniors,â€ live off campus with their best friends, party every night, and show up to class hung over. But they will cope with next yearâ€™s cold-as-stainless-steel reality better than theyâ€™re now willing to believe.
In either case, I will never see or hear from most of them again. I feel particularly close to many of this yearâ€™s seniors, perhaps because they arrived as I was beginning my fourth year of teaching. By my fourth year, I had the sense I knew what I was doing and had confidence doing it. In many ways, it was like being a college senior. Students can sense self-confidence and so are more likely to believe the messenger and accept the message, which let me build better relationships with them.
Those relationships will be over Sunday afternoon. Oh, e-mail will bring occasional updates, and the postal service will bring the odd card from someone Iâ€™ve temporarily forgotten, but e-mail is just an electric wisp, a card is just a ghost of ink. I will always be grateful for the ghosts and wisps, but such messages are no more common than comets.
The pragmatist in me says thatâ€™s the way the world works, and in this matter, the pragmatist prevails every year. The students walk off the stage on Motherâ€™s Day, clutching fresh diplomas, and we exchange handshakes, hugs and hurried farewells. I spend the rest of the day in a bittersweet, mist-like melancholy; then itâ€™s time to look ahead to fall, to the returning students and to a new group of first-year students.
Once classes begin in late August, my mind will whisper that before I know it, Iâ€™ll be exchanging hugs and handshakes with the class of 2009. In August, it will be easy to dismiss that soft voice. But today the whisper about this yearâ€™s seniors is insistent, its message of impending, sweet sorrow impossible to ignore.
Categories: American Culture
Thanks, Pat. As someone who’s only now into his second year of mentoring interns at my company, I’m still in the “lacks self-confidence” phase of the process. Maybe in another few years I’ll be able to look back and smile at what my interns learned instead of grimace about how badly I feel I did teaching them (their opinions to the contrary notwithstanding).
I can only add one word to this masterpiece: “Ditto.”
This was always a really lonely time for me. People leaving, and as you say, you know you won’t see them again. Their families are all in for the event, which can make you feel like an outsider in your own home. And having to grade all the damned papers doesn’t help.
I hope you can recognize that they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are without you…
You want to know what will happen to all this in the end?
Read Neil Goodman’s “Letters from Home. Our Father’s Message of Love” – especially Chapter 7 and Chapter 14.