It’s June! Just yesterday, I had the feeling summer is starting. It feels warm even when it’s in the 60s, and my allergies are . It’s also getting close to the end of the school year where I live, and it’s graduation season. I realized that every school graduation I’ve had has been during the first week in June, which explains why finishing up school in May always sounds too early, and going past the first week in June sounds like summer is being squandered in a classroom. Now that I’m not a student any longer, I think of graduation as being a time of excitement, happiness, pride, and optimism for the next chapter in life. Looking back, though, my own feelings when I graduated were a lot more complicated. Here’s what I remember about graduating from elementary school, high school, college, and grad school.
8th Grade, 1997
How I felt: optimistic and a little scared about a fresh start in high school
After ten years at my elementary school, where I’d started Junior Kindergarten when I was four, I was moving on to a high school where I’d have about 900 classmates. I’d been in school with the same 45-50 kids for all those years, and I think most of us were a little bit sick of each other.
The ceremony, which lasted at least as long as my college graduation, ended with us singing “In My Life” by the Beatles, our selection. The year before the class had sung the theme song from Cheers. Why did they let us choose our own songs? Afterward we were driven around town in a parade of convertibles on a route designed to take us past as many of the kids in the class’s houses as possible. People put big signs on their lawns for their kids that stay up for most of the summer. It’s a small town.
I had signed up for summer school biology and was going to camp at the end of the summer, so I definitely knew what was coming next, then pre-season swim team, then the new school year. I had picked my high school classes. I was reluctant to leave the safety of a place where I knew my place. Never mind that my teachers and classmates had seen every awkward and embarrassing moment of my life up to that point, I was pretty freaked out. How I did in high school would impact how I did in college and by extension my entire life, and I know my classmates would be smart and motivated and good at all the activities I enjoyed but never excelled in. But, who knew? Maybe high school would be the place where I’d shine, and discover heretofore-unknown talents.
High School, 2001
How I felt: not ready to leave the nest, excited, but scared
It turned out that my local high school was too big for me. Halfway through, I talked my parents into letting me go to boarding school. I had thought boarding school would be like summer camp with homework, and that basically turned out to be true. I would wake up every day and think, “I’m so happy to be here.”
I loved my teachers; I loved my friends, who are still some of my nearest and dearest; I loved the beautiful campus and the simplicity of knowing that my only jobs were to go to school and sports practice, do my homework, and get to check-ins on time. I lived in a building with my friends, and there wasn’t any much pressure to have an exciting life because we lived in a building without internet and no cell phones at a girls school. I was not in a hurry to grow up too fast, and I got to stay a kid there.
I also knew that I was returning home to a terminally ill parent. Any excitement I had about college was overshadowed by the knowledge that I would start this new chapter either having recently lost my dad or dreading a phone call telling me he was gone. My high school community had been incredibly supportive, and I felt safe and cared for. College is a fresh start, but it meant I would be navigating this while trying to make new friends and figure out academics without the structure of high school I thrived within.
How I felt: burned out, relieved, overwhelmed by the uncertainty of my future
Man, was I relieved to be done with college. I had wonderful professors, and learned tons of interesting things. I even managed to make some wonderful friends, but college was brutal. Every assignment was a slog at best. I was totally burned out emotionally by the time I was done. If I could change anything in my life, I would have taken a gap year before starting college. I think I would have had a dramatically different- and better- time at college if I had given myself time to bounce back a bit after a major loss. I graduated feeling like I hadn’t made the most of my time there, and burst into tears immediately after I was handed my diploma and almost tripped on the stairs leading off the stage. Luckily, my class dean was there to give me a hand and keep me on my feet, which was apt, because she had been a stalwart source of support and guidance for all of college.
This was also the first time I wore a cap and gown- high school had been another white dress occasion- and it felt a little silly, and I couldn’t get my cap to stay on. I don’t remember anything about the speeches, but my best friend’s mom had the wisest words for me: “You can lose your job, and you can lose your hair, but no one can ever take this away from you.”
I had zero idea what to do next. I was pretty sure academia and teaching weren’t for me, and as an art history and history major, there isn’t a very clear career path outside of education. I was sure I needed some time off of school, so graduate school was off the table for the time being. I was planning to move home to find a job, and I had no clue what I might want to do or even could do. I didn’t have a sense of what I might be good at, or how my academic skills related to job skills. There was a whole world of possibilities, but I didn’t know how to explore them. What was I going to do with my life?
Graduate school, 2010
Feeling: happy to be moving onto the next chapter
I went from commencement to lunch with my family to my college reunion. It was blazingly hot, and I had to wear a rented cap and gown, which had these weird batwing sleeves that I found a paper clip inside of. I took the gown off at my seat in the full sun, because it was so hot, and got really sunburned. When I got my diploma the man distributing them asked, “And what are you doing next?” I blurted out, “I have no idea.”
I had done some interviewing during the school year, including one where I was asked how I expected to get older men working in a warehouse to listen to me. I was too taken aback in the moment to tell him off, although it was clear at that moment that I would not be moving forward. I had gone into my one-year program hoping that deeper understanding of the field I had been working in would make me like it better. While I did learn gain a solid foundation to supplement what I’d learned on the job, especially quantitatively, experiences like that interview soured me on the field. Nonetheless, I figured I’d be able to find a job, although significant student debt created some urgency.
I was glad to be done with grad school. The happiest moment had been when I turned in my thesis a week or so earlier, but graduating was still a really good feeling. I was also really happy that I hadn’t chosen a longer program or something open-ended, like a PhD. And it was a good feeling to be heading into my reunion on a high note. When people asked me what I was up to, I could say I’d just graduated from grad school, and many of my classmates were in the same boat- either just starting, finishing, or in the midst of grad school. I did end up getting a job a few weeks later through a referral from an alum of the program, where I stayed for three years. When I had the chance, though, I stepped away from the field, which my gut had been telling me since 2010.