What a long, strange blah blah blah blah

By Garth Brody

Ellie Rulon-Miller/Collegian

Graduation, graduation, graduation. G-r-a-d-u-a-t-i-o-n. Still there? I was hoping it would be one of those words where if you repeat it enough, it starts to lose its meaning. Like a mantra. Shrim, shrim, shrim. Ohm, ohm, ohm. Graduation, graduation, graduation. No? Well, okay. I guess I’ll write the column.

Graduation season is upon us; you can almost smell it in the air. Somewhere between the airborne plant sperm and the nervous sweat of procrastinators (sorry, Professor Gallo), the palpable essence of graduation hangs in the air like some enormous ghost, bloated with the collective expectations of students, families and communities.

All over town, the fat ghost of graduation is swooping low over the backpacks of little fifth-graders, hovering idly next to gangly eighth-graders, shifting in the afternoon sun near a pack of high school seniors or drifting, at 3 a.m., behind the glowing laptops of outgoing UMass kids.

It’s right there, Class of 2012. You can almost touch it. Its gooey ectoplasm is (unless that’s something else – sorry).

To those of us who are graduating from UMass in a few weeks, the ghost has been hanging around a lot lately. Not to worry, though; it’s friendly. It likes to chat. I’ve had some terrific conversations with the ghost of graduation. It’s even been kind enough to explain itself to me – tell me what its deal is. It seems overwhelming from a distance, but it turns out graduation is a lot simpler than we make it out to be. In fact, graduation means just three things. They are as follows.

First, it means you’re just over a week away from being in the same room as Ted Koppel, which is neat.

Second, it means strangers will start lining up to motivate you in regards to your future, often using sports metaphors: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take; swing for the fences; be the ball. Pay attention when this happens. Pretending to know about sports is a key skill in networking.

Third (and this is the big one), it means that your friends, relatives and hangers-on will be prompting you to synthesize four years’ worth of experiences into a few sentences. Don’t be glib. You should cherish these moments of perfunctory self-reflection. It won’t be long before people stop asking you about what your hopes and dreams are or what you’ve learned here or the meaning of “comparative literature.” You’ll be adults.

And even though you’ll invariably become an increasingly interesting and nuanced person as you grow older, you’ll mostly be known as either a functioning or a non-functioning adult. The functioning types will have digestible job titles and improved cursive signatures and an inexplicable desire to watch cable news, the non-functioning types will have bad lawns and too many cats and smell like soup, but no matter what, as you grow older, you will be asked less and less frequently to reflect on your life (until you retire, at which point this whole song and dance starts all over again).

This is all hearsay, though. It’s just the stuff the ghost of graduation has been telling me. I think the point it’s trying to make is that we ought to take our graduation seriously. Which is pretty obvious, really. Plus, as the quasi-physical embodiment of graduation, I think the ghost is probably a little biased.

So I’ve been taking what it says with a grain of salt. Still, I liked the part about how every adult is, by default, more interesting than I am. It got me thinking: The past four years I have been raptly listening to the words of a really tiny group of adults, relatively speaking. Maybe 30 professors, tops. And now that I’m graduating, that slow trickle of professional instruction will cease, dry up. Which leaves me with what?

Well, there are two ways to look at it. The pessimistic answer is that it leaves me with an increasingly valueless degree and a mountain of debt. The optimistic (and less shortsighted) answer is that it leaves me with a taste for intellectual stimulation and the means to seek it out.

In other words, thanks to the accumulating-interestingness principle of adulthood, my pedagogical options haven’t depleted; they’ve exploded, because everybody in the world is an expert at precisely what they do, and I am an utter novice in their area of expertise, guaranteed.

It’s a pleasant realization, especially for someone who might otherwise be tempted to think of the upcoming graduation as being very ceremoniously pooped out of a giant diploma factory. Because even if that’s the case, it’s just a metaphorical factory – and once I’ve brushed off the metaphorical soot of OWLs and SPIRE and GPAs, I can walk away knowing that I’m a little more interesting than I was four years ago and that I’m a little better prepared to learn from those with things to teach (i.e. everybody).

Probably what I’ve been trying to say here is that learning is fun and to respect your elders, but if I had said that right up front, nobody would have kept reading. That’s the magic of a college education right there: I just spent 800+ words telling you something you already knew. So stop wasting your time reading this column and go learn from somebody with some real experience – like those guys who hang out in front of Subway downtown. Or Ted Koppel, whichever. Different strokes, you know.

Garth Brody was an assistant Arts editor at the Collegian. He can be reached at [email protected]