27 April 2010

Ends and Beginnings (Commencement)

My institution's Commencement has been in the news lately, and it's gotten me thinking about my own commencements, or graduations as they're more commonly known among the graduates.

One word signifies an end, the completion of whatever one set out to do in the educational institution--or whatever one accomplished in spite of or in addition to goals set on arrival.

Entering college, I was going to be a doctor, or maybe a lawyer, or failing either of those, a philosophy professor. Three semesters of calculus and four years later, I applied to one graduate philosophy program, zero medical institutions, and one program for English teachers in China. Bingo: I got the position as an English teacher, and one thing led to another, and 20-odd years later, here I am professing English.

Entering grad school, I was going to be an ESL teacher, or maybe teach high school English. One half of one course in medieval literature later, with the late great Robert Raymo, and I was hooked. Nearly 20 years later, I'm professing medieval English literature.

And at that Commencement, I cried. Leaving high school, I was jubilant, profoundly relieved to be able to get out of rural New Hampshire. Leaving college, I was jubilant again. Leaving grad school, where I finally felt at home, I sat in Carnegie Hall and wept, and wept, and wept, as various speakers gave various kinds of good advice, of which I recall very little.

And then we walked across the stage to receive our degrees, and Professor Raymo placed the doctoral hood over my shoulders, and my father met me at the other end of the stage with possibly the biggest hug he ever gave me, and it was all over.

But also: a beginning. And this year I'll get to watch another batch of graduates commencing, going into a world that's uncertain, yet still beginning lives as people hopefully transformed by their years of education.