Shifting awkwardly back and forth in my chair I glistened under the lights. The robe, or “death bag” as my housemates and I called it, trapped heat more than I had anticipated. I’d achieved goal one: don’t trip walking to your seat, but I had a few more to hit.
I couldn’t tell you who spoke, or really much about my college graduation. When I hit my seat it was like it all became real and I was petrified.
Four years. It had taken me four years to get here. Or really 22 years. There I sat, on the edge of my seat and the edge of my future.
As each award and special recognition was handed out my heart jumped to my throat and then plummeted again. When that was all said and done I was so close to tears. There were no special cords around my neck. No additional certificates in my hands. In high school I was heavily burdened by extra regalia. I was just shy of giving the coveted valedictorian speech. Now I sat and felt invisible.
To compensate I tried to think of everything I had learned in the previous four years. My brain scrambled through its card catalog and I couldn’t spout any theorems, quote a great philosopher, or give a definition for anything. As an English/writing major I wasn’t equipped with facts or figures to ramble off to feel smarter.
Another gut punch of failure. When it came my time to walk on stage I did everything right. Take diploma (holder) left, shake right, pause and smile for the camera, don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip, and back to my thinking chair.
The weight of my empty diploma cover was crushing. I felt bent and broken underneath its plasticized, leathery girth.
More words were said, I tossed my cap (then found it again), and proceeded to the reception in the other gymnasium. Here I stood with the friends who became family and had journeyed through these pivotal years with me. We laughed, hugged, posed for photos, and let our reality sink in just a little deeper. We spoke of plans with professors and well-wishers. Then we walked out just like we had from intramural games and dances.
That day is so cemented in my brain along with the feelings it brought. So are the feelings of the days, weeks, and months that followed. I continued my attempts to grasp at something to prove my investments of time, energy, and cash.
I couldn’t tell you when the value of my education truly hit me. It was probably a slow creep in that suddenly overwhelmed me while I was writing one day.
Though I can’t spout off facts and figures, or quote anything terribly profound, I amassed more than I could ever concisely express.
In the classroom I learned how to think critically, speak up for myself, know when to keep quiet, and how to see the world in new ways. I learned how to have an open mind, and that people are going to disagree with you – even the professor. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means that people can interpret things differently.
I learned how I learn. And how I don’t learn. When I work best, and that all-nighters are never the way to go (though you get good stories out of them, so it’s totally worth it).
I learned that you need to show up, physically and mentally, and you get out of things what you put into them. Other people can’t do that for you.
I learned to write better. And to just write. There’s right ways and technically incorrect ways, but your voice is yours.
I learned that I love to learn. I devoured new subjects and was ready to change my major after two weeks in a new class…and then change it back toward the end of the semester when I realized it probably wasn’t the best fit for me.
I learned how to live with people. How to choose people. That people move in and out of your life, and that’s okay.
I learned about, and fell in love with, story.
I learned to say yes to the late night Meijer run, to that walk around the pond, to freestyle rapping instead of giving a speech, to a journey that never ends, to shopping carts and skateboards, to photo adventures, to road trips, and to people.
I learned about myself.
Though I’m a very different person now, and the people around me are mostly different than those who were my tribe in college, I would not be the person I am today without this season and those people.
So now when I think about what I learned in college I have a smile on my face and more words than I have time to speak. For that I am grateful.