Out of My Mind: Not With a Bang

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

 I often think of these words of T. S. Eliot this time of year. His description of the end of the world feels very much like the end of the school year to me. I want to go out with a bang. Every year I hope that my teaching will build to a crescendo and that my classes will end with a round of thundering applause from grateful students who have been inspired by my words to some great achievement. Yet somehow the reality never quite plays out as I imagine. Instead of crossing the finish line with a flourish and a cheer, it feels as if I sputter to a halt.

I am conflicted by the all too soon arrival of the end of the school year. On the one hand I feel grateful that the year is over. Yet the end of semester is also a time for regret. That’s true every semester that I teach. I can’t help feeling remorseful about the material we didn’t get to cover. I worry about whether I assigned the right amount of work or whether we addressed the right questions.

There is, however, something unique about the end of the spring semester because that marks, not just the end of another course, but the completion of another school year. An entire class of students walks across the stage to receive their diplomas and then out into the world. Despite the fact that we have toiled together for the past 3 or 4 years, I will never hear from most of them again. I can see the end coming weeks before it finally happens. Nevertheless, I am always taken by surprise. How have the months passed so quickly? It seems like it was just weeks ago all these students arrived on campus.

The melancholy I feel during this season is underscored by the spring rituals that inevitably cluster around the close of the school year. At this time of the year banquets, proms, graduations, and weddings pop up in clusters like dandelions on my lawn. These rites of passage seem both familiar and distant to me. They are familiar because they mirror my own experience. Was it really so long ago that these celebrations were for me?

But they are also distant. Those events might as well be ancient history to me now. Now it is my children who take their place on the platform in cap and gown. I snap their picture with a digital camera and look at it on the computer at home. Later, when I dust off the old photo album and look at the pictures taken of me so many decades ago, I marvel at the difference. These images that once looked fresh now seem faded and quaint, as out of date as the clothing and hairstyles we thought looked so good on us at the time.

 At the same time, because I am a teacher and required to attend graduation every year, the same rituals which seem like such watershed moments in the lives of my students are also marked by a kind of monotony. Each graduating class sees the occasion as unique–unparalleled in their experience–thoroughly unaware that there is another class queuing up behind them. The net effect is a sense of inescapable motion and I feel as if I am in motion with them. All of us moving forward through the years, like dry leaves that are being carried along by a rolling breeze. We are not the first to make this journey and we will not be the last. And like all who have gone before us, we too will one day be surprised to find that the distant shore to which we were tending looms so suddenly on the horizon. We thought the journey had only just begun.

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