Dear Seniors –
In the run-up to my undergraduate graduation ceremony, I despaired. I felt so many things, almost all of them contradictory, and it seemed impossible to imagine that my body could contain them all. I was so glad to be done – I had had it with papers and seminars and the reach of professors into my life. I was proud – I had earned a BA with Honors and that was no small accomplishment, especially as a first-gen student. And yet I was heartbroken – I would never live side-by-side with this group of friends again. There was no future in which we could see each other every day if we chose. We no longer had sway over that one table on the third floor of the library; there were no more afternoons to spend by the lake, reading books and playing guitar and talking seriously about whether the friendship between Amy and Emily of the Indigo Girls could weather their separate artistic careers.
I couldn’t live with the contradiction, so I tried with all my might to embody the narrative of achievement and celebration that so many people told me was what I ought to feel. I pushed aside the frustration, wistfulness, and outright sadness I felt, and threw myself into the business of happiness like it was my new job. It saw me through a lot of turmoil, but when commencement ended and I had to say goodbye to my friend Charlotte, I broke down in ugly tears. I vividly remember that I couldn’t rein it in – I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car still sobbing as we drove away, and looking out the back window as campus grew smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared.
What no one had explained – who could, in my family, given that I was the first to go to college? – was that graduation was a liminal space. In the weeks up to commencement you are both a student and not; a roommate and not; a friend and not. Some part of you has transitioned and is yearning for what comes next, while other parts of you are in steadfast denial. There’s a wild, raw desire to be free which makes those last papers and exams the most damning, pointless, stupid things you’ve ever experienced. And yet you’re probably holding onto something else – a favorite campus spot; the terrible fries in the cafeteria; the friends who are moving across country – with a white-knuckle grip.
This is normal. It’s frustrating and confusing but almost inescapable. There is nothing wrong with you because you don’t know how to feel. There is nothing wrong with you because those feelings change on a dime.
When Stephen Colbert came to Knox College to give our commencement address in 2006, he spoke about the cardinal rule of comedy improv: to take what the person before you had done and say “yes, and . . .” It’s a strategy applicable beyond a comedy club – to say “yes, and . . .” about your own life is to acknowledge nuance and complexity and to hold a space for yourself to exist within that not-knowing. Yes, I am glad to be done, and I’m going to miss this place. Yes, this term has sucked, and I still loved this class. Yes, I can’t wait to live a life without always yearning for summer, and I don’t know that I’ll love a schedule that’s 8 to 5.
You are everything you’re feeling, the good and the bad, the joyful and the weary, the celebratory and the feeling of giving up home. If you’re my student you might be tired of me asking “but how does that make you feel?” – a question you probably never imagined could be at the center of a history class. But it’s a question you should ask yourself now, and ask your friends, so that you can acknowledge together that this is a rollercoaster, and you are torn between yelling to get off and going around again.
There’s value in all your feelings, contradictory as they may seem. Embrace them. Dare to live a life where two things can be true at once. Say “yes, and . . .” and mean it. You’ve got this, I promise.