Monday, May 21, 2007


The saddest piece of our job as professors involves the number of farewells that teaching requires.

Just when you've grown fond of a student, just when you think This person has really grown intellectually, is astoundingly smart, is becoming someone wonderful -- this is a person I could converse with in class and outside for a very long time -- well, that's when the student completes all credit hours, up and leaves you. Good-bye. You will write, won't you?

One of my new responsibilities as chair of the English Department is to give each graduating student a personal valediction at the reception we have for majors and their families. I then don my festive regalia and lead them in a solemn line into the athletic center where we stage our college celebration. I sit with them, and watch them smile and laugh. They whisper nervously to each other about how frightened they are to be at the end of four years at the university. They know that this ceremony marks an important transition, but they are rather bewildered about what verge exactly they stand upon. Late in the program a dean reads the name of each senior by major. At the announcement of her or his name, the proud English student walks across a stage, shaking hands and posing for photos that I assume will be sold to them after some obscene mark up. At the end of this little gamut I stand, one hand outstretched to congratulate, the other clasping a beribboned medallion for them to wear at the big commencement on the Mall the next day.

We have nearly a hundred majors this year. As each strode towards me, I caught him or her in my unnerving stare. Even the shyest I made look me in the eye before I clasped their hand. After I had glimpsed their soul -- and in most cases, after I had beheld a very good soul that filled me with an indescribable hope -- I gave them my biggest smile and my most heartfelt commendation. It felt like one of the most important things I had ever done.

I like the fact that in the United States we call our "final" day of undergraduate life "commencement," beginning. So forget my melancholy at farewells. My prediction now, shortly after seeing some beautiful glimpses of the future: there is much in this world that is good.

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