While I waited in yesterday morning's line-up, before our commencement procession began, I looked down and discovered a scrap of paper on my campus's central walkway, the one-mile stretch of gravel called Middle Path. The sun was dapply, the light wind cool, the very air lively with pride and expectation (not least because of the prominence of our commencement speaker). And once everything got underway, it all flew past like the birds I spend so much of my time watching: the speeches, the diplomas, the singing, the congratulations, the embraces. And the departures, so many departures.
So I photographed the scrap of paper, and you can click on it for a better view.
My semester isn't quite over; I'm now finishing that grading that got put aside when my anticipatory tears started falling late last week. Somewhat mercifully, I found myself completely dry-eyed at our two days' worth of ceremonies. In the pictures, I'm looking on with a proud smile as speaker after speaker and student after student files past. In my favorite photos from the commencement ceremony's aftermath, my students are the ones looking at the camera being wielded so ably by my brother the photographer, while I watch them watching themselves being captured. In a couple of pictures, I think I can trace the beginnings of new phases of friendship and correspondence; in the best ones, I'm laughing with these men and women--my students no longer--over jokes that I suspect were hilarious at the time but that I cannot remember even a day later.
And so, you see, it's not just because of the grading left to finish that I've found myself musing on the title of the book that lost its original circulation card on Middle Path--and, despite myself, feeling as though I too might be a scientist against time. If you knew these men and women, you wouldn't want them to leave you, either, though you'd also want them to make the most patient, attentive, and thoughtful haste toward the tremendous lives awaiting them. They are so young. They are not so much younger than I. So much will happen to and for them now. When next I see some of these young men and women, they will be married; at least one will probably have a child already. Some will be single and happy; others will be single and desperate; some will be doing fabulously fulfilling work; some will already be changing careers. Some will still be figuring out what the hell they're doing in every arena in life. They'll be artists, thinkers, writers, editors, friends, spouses, partners, parents. Importantly, I hope, they'll still be their own inimitable selves, still growing, still nosing around, still wondering why and asking how.
I have spent the interstices of my grading day hoping that I did my part of preparing them as well as I tried to do it. Did I help install the question mark at the ends of their thoughts, so that they'll never rest too easily in anything they're told? Did I help stoke their love of books and ideas and discussions, a love fierce and tenacious enough that they won't let the relentlessness of everyday life sidetrack their intellectual passions? Did I help them see inside the lives of words? Did I show them how much it matters to be careful with and for other people? Will they be happy? Will they be good? Will their worries be soft and their burdens manageable?
And under how many of these questions rankle the ones I can't ask--not of them, not of anyone. Will they miss me? Will I exist for them when they're here no longer? On one hand, I know the simple answers to these questions. But on the other hand, I don't and won't know, and maybe no one will really ever be able to tell me.
(But no. After a night's sleep: if you knew these men and women, you would, as I do, want them to go away, without regret and without nostalgic weight. And you'd want them to return occasionally to report on what they've seen. And you'd know that some will, and you would be happy with that, and you'd be able to remember today that you're actually a scientist of time, not against it. You would perhaps also have to acknowledge that you are ambivalence's own anatomist.)