Graduation and the Final Exam Question
Some years ago a friend of mine described to me a concept that I immediately loathed: he called it “graduating from people.”
I hated it because my worst fear was (and probably still is) the fear of being left behind by those I love. “You can’t graduate from people!” I protested. “People aren’t like subjects or classes that you can master on a final exam! You can never graduate from a human being.” The concept was clearly utilitarian, narrow, immature. “People aren’t topics to be learned, papers to be written, puzzles to figure out.” I thought about how so many former subjects I have “graduated from” seemed to me. “You don’t just squeeze all the learning you can out of a person and then in a couple of years forget him! It’s not like you can earn a ‘grade’ on a friendship, or even worse assign a grade to one!”
Didn’t C. S. Lewis say something about how we are always surrounded by immortal souls, destined for the glory of God? Eventually it would be like my favorite scene in The Last Battle, where—once again, from Lucy’s eyes—we meet all those we ever loved or ever knew or ever loved us or even the ones we did not know, but met fleetingly. There certainly wouldn’t be diplomas or report cards.
Thinking about it now, for all of my philosophical moralizing at the time, my younger self was probably most afraid of an idea implicit but unsaid: People leaving. People changing irrevocably. People not needing me or wanting me anymore. People graduating from me.
Ironically, my greatest fear has now become an essential part of my chosen vocation.
The words of another friend of mine, “your vocation is where your deepest desire meets the world’s greatest need,” come to mind—only now they seem a little adjusted: “your deepest fear meets the world’s greatest desire” or something like that.
I say this because being a teacher means to love people, help them learn everything you can teach them and give them, and then to let them go. You want them to graduate from you. Year after year, over and over again.
I’m sitting here in my empty classroom, gazing at the empty desks and the bare walls and the remains of a Great Gatsby project in the corner. I know where all the kids sit and where most of my last year’s seniors sat, where the posters should be, where the books should be, where everything should be—especially the noise.
But now they have all graduated from me. And it is good and right that they have. That’s my job. That’s their job.
The temptation when you’re an ACE teacher, I think, is to imagine yourself as a Mary Poppins or a Maria in “The Sound of Music” or a Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” or a Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love”… or as any of those iconic teachers who transform the lives of families or schools or disadvantaged children by their charisma and determination. That’s the temptation. When really you are, most likely, a self absorbed, middle class Northern college graduate who is the real one in need of learning—the truly uneducated one, the truly poor one, the truly needy one. Whether the learning you so desperately require can come from a group of second graders who teach simplicity of heart or a pack of fifth graders who offer courses in chaos survival or a mob of eleventh graders who can give you a Masters degree in humility and pride-annihilation.
But at some point, graduation day comes. They graduate from you, and you graduate from them. And this type of graduating from people does not exclude love but rather, for a teacher, constitutes it.
And not in some idealistic or Romantic (as in Romanticism) way, either. I got some awkward hugs and hesitant “see you later, Ms. Shea”s and a few beautiful notes scribbled on the back of exam essays yesterday that made me cry. But there is no good way to say goodbye.
When I graduated from college two years ago, I walked around the campus and promised to keep in touch and finally left with my parents to go have lunch.
A little anti-climatic to say the least, for the great Epic Story that so many of us former Romers feel we are a part of at UD! And it feels the same way now.
In his convocation address to us, Dr. Roper warned us how it would be. I’ve been thinking about his words a lot as I approach my second graduation—from ACE, from Notre Dame… but most importantly from my kids here in Louisiana. And I actually think now that my friend’s idea of “graduating from people” is not wholly incompatible with Dr. Roper’s final address to us. In fact, like my friend, he described life and people in academic terms. He said there was one last final exam question we have to answer, which he posed to us as we sat all together as a class in the Church of the Incarnation for probably the last time:
Are you ready to die?
Now, I want to assure you that, proposed legislation in the Texas House aside, under this voluminous late-medieval guildsman’s ceremonial outfit, I’m not “packing”.
And I know what else you’re thinking: “Sweet Holy Job, Roper, I know you Irishmen like to read the obituaries, but could you make this any more depressing? It’s supposed to be a happy time, a celebration—we’re heading towards Commencement, a beginning, not… that.” Well, I promise I’ll bring this back around; the nature of reality is, after all, comic. I mean, you can’t hold back grace and comedy in a world where Michael Kelsey can become a multinational pick-up artist, right?
But in fact graduation, leaving UD, can have as much a sense of a little death as of new life; students often feel bereft, find themselves grieving, over losing daily contact with the immediate and close circle of friends, the great professors who are my colleagues, the wonderful, endless yack about texts and ideas. (When I walked down the Mall after my own graduation too many years ago, a five-foot Cistercian, Father Chris Rabay, the Charity Week jailbreak expert long before Father Maguire assumed his mantle, asked me how I felt. I thought I felt great, but surprised myself by choking out, “It’ll be hard to leave this place.” “Oh, we have a saying in Hungarian,” he responded: “‘Life is one long goodbye’.”) And soon after graduation you will find that student loans, marriages, children, mortgages, careers, all involve daily dying to self. I think it’s providential that this remarkable class ended its time at UD with the events of Holy Week so close to finals, so I’m going to ask you my final exam question, whether you like it or not.
Are you ready to die?
The entire education you have received here, if we look at it in one way, has had this question looming from the beginning.