Monday, September 17, 2007

More signs

Well, it's official--I am a Master of English. The diploma came in the mail the other day. It is, like most diplomas, very impressive looking. The filigree in the university name is lovely, and the text is sort of...raised? somehow, and even better, it's got my name on it.

My family and friends are impressed by it. My response has been more low-key. "It's just a piece of paper," I mumbled. And it is a piece of paper, true, merely a signifier for the two years of blood, sweat, tears, and internalized pressure that I voluntarily subjected myself to.

I don't mean to denigrate my degree; goodness knows there are enough people ready to do that. No, what I meant was, and I clarified on a couple of occasions, as far as I was concerned, my degree was complete the moment I hit send to e-mail my prof the last paper. But that still isn't quite what I meant. What I think I meant was, "OK, this is sort of a big deal, but I still don't know what to make of it, so I'll play it cool."

Graduation, the actual ceremony, was a numb experience for me. There were friends and family there, all wishing me the best and praising my efforts. There were other people I knew, too, fellow GA's who still had one more year to go, classmates I may never see again, professors who wished me well and urged me to keep in mind a PhD somewhere down the road, a former student who gave me a congratulatory hug. There was an air of celebration, yes, but there was also an air of finality and farewell and impending change. I smiled when I was supposed to, shook hands and hugged people I wouldn't otherwise admit into my circle of personal space, but they were just motions. I wasn't really "there."

I went home that night and scribbled out a poem expressing my graduation angst:
Future beckons
with crooked finger
mocking, seducing
all at once

leave all you've known
take a leap, come

you'll learn to swim

soon enough
It made me smile wryly as I realized just how melodramatic it was, but that encapsulated my mood. I'm surprised now to realize that even in my self-indulgence, I had pinpointed what made graduation so jarring--fear of the future. It still drives me, this fear. Oh, it tries to disguise itself as a cool dislike of change and nostalgia for the past. That's what I told myself as I gloomily cleared everything out of my former cubicle, remembering all the random discussions with my fellow grad assistants, ranging from what X Prof said to the merits of Metallica to what our students had the audacity to do to What Came Next. I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to work with such a neat group of people again, or so I told myself. I was scared stiff of moving on, of searching for a job and risking rejection, or equally frightening, finding a new job and having to adjust accordingly.

Fear of change, when I look at it honestly, is what drove me to grad school in the first place. I may have whined about the podunk campus and the commute and the student body as a whole, but it was familiar, and it bought two years to postpone any big decisions. Fear of change is at least 50% of what prompted me to take this job, teaching at the college I started out at, with colleagues who know me. It's what paralyzes me when I think about What Comes Next, when I think about whether to put down (or more accurately, maintain) roots here, or take a chance on something new.

As a grad assistant, I had a new role with new responsibilities, but while I was transitioning into the role of "teacher," I still had one foot firmly on the "student" side of the equation. Now, I'm solidly on the side of "teacher." That thought really messes with my head when I let it. I've watched with wary interest as my high school classmates have been moving away and marrying off and having children within the last few years, thinking to myself that they're going places, changing, and that they're not irresponsible youth anymore. Somehow, I'd managed to detach myself from that equation--I may not have moved away or made too many changes in my personal life, but my education and work have indeed moved me past some invisible line between... whatever I was and whatever comes next.

My diploma is a reminder that a door has shut behind me and a sign that things have changed and will continue to change. An arbitrary sign, perhaps, but a sign nonetheless.

...Who knew semiotics would be useful to understanding post-graduation angst?

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