I am a teacher, and for me and teachers everywhere, this time of year is a time of many emotions. I am always excited that the semester is ending and that the glorious expanse of summer is just ahead. At the same time, it is always just a little bittersweet because, since I think of my life in academic terms, it marks the passing of another year.
Commencement is the term we use for graduation ceremonies. It’s funny because the denotation of the word is “the beginning or start” of something, but we assign the term to the pomp and circumstance that concludes an educational experience. But I like that the word is forward-looking: it implies that we are ready to begin the next new, exciting chapters of our lives.
I have commenced 4 times in my life: in 1991 from high school, in 1999 from Howard Community College, in 2001 from the University of Baltimore, and in 2003 from the University of Maryland. I have one more commencement in my future. God willing, that will be 2016 from Morgan State University with my doctorate, and then I will be able to retire from being a student.
My road to and through college was not a straight one. I went to a private, religious high school that graduated boys who were encouraged to be preachers and girls who were encouraged to be housewives and Sunday school teachers. My high school coaxed students to consider colleges that prepared young people to be in church-oriented professions: places like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College. If you can believe it, Dear Reader, Liberty University was considered too liberal – we were not supposed to consider that as an option. So of course, that is where we all wanted to go! Show us that forbidden fruit!
I have wonderful memories of high school. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I will: I won an award for “Christian Character,” I lettered in 3 sports (volleyball, basketball, and softball), was a team captain in 3 sports, was a league all-star and MVP in 3 sports, was named a US Army Scholar Athlete my senior year, worked on the yearbook, was the president of my senior class, and earned the title of valedictorian. I gave a speech at my graduation. I was also voted homecoming queen. (Those of you who know me well will appreciate how little I cared about that last thing, but it happened.) High school was a blur of fun things, and even though I was considering college, as a first-generation college student, it was not my main focus or goal but an option. I grew up in a blue-collar family, so I felt no pressure to go off to college.
When I graduated from high school, I had a partial scholarship to attend Liberty University (of course I applied there!). I was also considering the “family business”: I grew up in a Navy family and was weighing whether to join the Army or the Navy. I also knew my step-father was about to be reassigned from Andrews Air Force Base to a new duty station and was considering just moving out and starting my own life, putting down roots here in Maryland – as a Navy brat who had moved all over the place her whole life, this was pretty appealing. Ultimately, I decided to move out on my own and take a few classes at community college. Then, as Frost said, way led on to way, and after a few semesters I ended up putting off college while I worked in the “real world.”
I loved being on my own, but not long after I moved out into my own apartment, I got married, and after that as a partner in a marriage determined to pull her own weight, I worked as a puppet, a pirate, a poet, a pauper, a pawn and a king. Well, almost: I worked at Carvel making ice cream cakes, at a pharmacy as a technician, as a softball and basketball coach, as a bartender, as a vice principal at a private school, and as a Special Police Officer for the Federal Protective Service. It is in this job that life took a dramatic turn.
Many of you will recall the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that occurred in April 1995. American “Patriot” Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck full of explosives in front of this federal office building that he then detonated, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others. I mention this event because at the time, I was working for the FPS in Crystal City, Virginia. My duty station was a federal building. My beat took me between the Crystal City complex, the Navy Annex, and the Pentagon. I was on that same beat two years later: April 19, 1997. We were all on high alert that day because it was the anniversary of the bombing, and that is when people get a little squirrelly. We got a call that a “suspicious object” was left unattended in the stairwell at one of the Crystal City buildings. This was not a drill.
There are a lot of things about that day that I don’t remember, but a few things will never fade. The first thing I remembered was my training: we had to evacuate the building to make sure all of the workers were safe, but then it was my job to run into the building. It was my job to run back into the building. I was the valedictorian of my class, and my job was to run into the building to look for the potential bomb. I also remembered a conversation I had with my mom just a few days before that. She told me that she was going to start taking college classes. Because my mom chose to have a family at a young age, she had to earn her GED and now, years later, she was going to start pursuing her college education. It struck me that I had no excuse. I had been given every advantage my parents could give me, and I never cashed those things in. I needed to have a path or plan for the future that led me out of the fire, not into it. (I should say now that I have tremendous respect for first responders – that job is not for punks – that is hard, dangerous, and honorable work. I am not worthy.)
The “suspicious object” was found by someone else and was not a threat, but a prank. But it was a metaphorical bomb to me because it blew UP my life. I had to admit that this was not how I imagined things for myself. The next day as I was coming home from work, I took a detour. In a trance, I drove to the bookstore where I wandered into the section called “Classics.” At my conservative high school, we weren’t given the opportunity to read a lot of literature. We read some Romantic poets (Wordsworth), Animal Farm (to remind us how great America is), and Romeo and Juliet (as a cautionary tale: don’t think you can defy your parents). I was starved for literature. I wanted to see the world through new eyes. I stood in front of that shelf of mysterious books, and my eyes fell on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I had heard of that book, so I bought it and read it. I didn’t get it. But I knew that there was something there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the “green light” and other things in the book. It made me curious to read more. I bought another book after that: To Kill a Mockingbird. And then I read Catcher in the Rye. And then, before I knew it, it was August, and I was enrolling in classes at Howard Community College.
The two years I spent at Howard Community College changed my life definitively. I came there lost and not knowing quite what I sought. I picked a major (Psychology) out of thin air and, because of an amazing teacher, found my true calling. I ended up in her Introduction to Literature class by divine accident (I thought I needed a requirement that I did not need), but that literature class made me want to take another literature class. And another…. After I wrote a paper for one of those classes, the teacher, who was the same amazing teacher from my other classes, wrote a question on my essay: “Why aren’t you an English major?????” I could not answer that. This teacher got me to consider the thing that no one else had: what is it that I love? I switched my major. I went on to finish my undergraduate degree and earn my master’s degree in English Literature. I said yes to some unbelievably lucky opportunities that allowed me to start teaching, and ultimately, I was lucky enough to find a way to make what I love what I do for a living. In Taoist philosophy, it is believed that the “way” becomes clear for an individual when the individual surrenders to what is. The way is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. The way is commencement. It is not lost on me that I am able to pay that forward. A teacher changed my life by helping me give in to what I loved. Maybe I will inspire some student somewhere to change hers. And so on, and so on… I try to ask my students every semester: What is it that you love? What is it that you want? I ask them to understand that life is long and that work is part of our identity: it should be more than just earning a salary. Maybe, for some student, that will inspire them to consider their passion and not just a paycheck.
Commencement: the day in 1999 when I graduated from HCC. I felt a renewed idea of my purpose for my life. I felt, for the first time in a long time, like I was going to be able to shape my destiny instead of just stumble onto it. Commencement: I am drawn, every summer, back to The Great Gatsby. I have read that book at the beginning of every summer since 1997. I understand why Gatsby wanted to reinvent himself. I understand his desire to be the author of his own story. I didn’t understand it when I first read it, but it profoundly speaks to me now, and now each time I read it, it resonates more and more. Gatsby helped me get started on a new path, and now, it is the way I commence, in gratitude, welcoming each new year.
Do you have a book that saved your life?
Coming next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe
© 2015 Ryna May