Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Graduating, Ending and Beginning

Several family and friend graduations this month have me remembering my own graduations and thinking about that transition… the incredible excitement of finally finishing years of intense work, seeing a big blank space open up in front of you, full of potential but also of the unknown…. the rush of emotion as they do that whole corny ritual of “pomp and circumstance” (I always thought they said, “pompous circumstance”… and perhaps that fits better…;-)) and you realize you won’t be seeing some classmates ever again… the pride when you walk across the stage and get that piece of paper (which ends up in a bureau drawer or, in my case, thumb-tacked to a bookcase)… Suddenly family and friends are focused on you, on your accomplishments, and it feels a bit embarrassing but immensely satisfying as well… I remember thinking I wouldn’t go to my Masters degree award ceremony, since I’d done graduation once already (twice, counting high school), so I was totally amazed at how deeply it affected me to parade up the lawn and into the chapel at Marylhurst… there is something in ritual that touches the marrow, tells us on some molecular level that something has changed. We don’t have enough ritual in America, that or the ones we have are commercialized, unconscious or both. As someone who is shy and not good at rituals, I nonetheless see their very powerful effect and believe we need some at the important junctures of our lives… and it brings up so many themes for me, but today I’m focusing on the idea of ending and beginning.

There is a threshold between ending and beginning; most of the time we just glide right over it without noticing (as when we leave a business group or end a one-time class), but sometimes it’s good to pause on that threshold and be aware. It’s interesting in this culture that we focus a lot of attention on beginning, on the excitement of something new, and don’t often acknowledge that it requires an ending of some kind. If we don’t consciously close one door before we open the next, we risk confusion and even conflict. The old us, which may have become entrenched and almost invisible to us, is being replaced -- and that’s not really something we can choose; it happens when we trade one identity (“student)” for another (“worker”, or even “unemployed”). But sometimes we keep acting, on autopilot, with the old identity. And conflicts arise -- the “student behaviors” don’t fit in the work world, or it’s hard to let go of the “scholar” identity when you suddenly are working behind a counter. This results in minor shocks, or even major setbacks… I recall the let-down, a decade ago, when I put down the diploma and took up the want-ads… and felt like I’d fallen off the mountain with its powerful vistas, into a wasteland of restaurant and telemarketing jobs -- not having the savvy to hustle myself a job before graduation (heck, I was just keeping up with the internship and papers!), I was one of too many who eagerly sought a “good job”… my identity changed overnight, from star student to just-another-applicant… what a blow! Had there been some time taken to help me over that threshold (or even a warning by a heads-up teacher that I needed to be aware), it might not have hit so hard… the graduation ceremony, meant to celebrate success -- and it does a good job at that -- does not help us all the way through the transition… I’m dreaming of some kind of mentorship, a helping hand by those who have gone before, to meet with recent grads, check in to how they’re doing, and be encouraging until that first hurdle, “the first job” is found and navigated… Anyone else think that’s a good idea?

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