Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The season of triumph and defeat

It's spring, and it's admissions and graduation season. On my university campus, faculty and students are hunkered down for the remaining weeks till the end of term and finals, while the university is just beginning the long "fix-it-up" period prior to commencement (new plantings, painting, etc).

Meanwhile, high school students are waiting for the envelopes from universities and colleges. The media tells us stories about hyper-articulate kids who get admitted everywhere they try. As a step-parent to teenagers, I know the media darlings are abnormal pseudo-children who were probably reading German philosophy in the original at age 12, and certainly didn't spend puberty trying to grow up like most kids do.

In our household, the joys of college acceptance have been undercut by the pains of rejection. Our young scholar, who really got it together this year academically, was a little too late-blooming for his preferred campuses, and there is a lot of disappointment chez IT. If only his beanstalk-like spurt into adulthood had happened a year or two earlier! I know he'll do fine, and learning to deal with setbacks is part of growing up, but it's still painful to see your kid lose that first dream. Even though we know he'll join the ranks of still-spotty freshmen somewhere, and begin to climb the ladder anew.

My undergraduate students are in the same boat, waiting for letters from graduate and medical schools, or facing a decision deadline. There are the triumphant ones who have choices between desirable programs, and whose only problem is making the decision. They have expansive body language, and loud and cheerful voices before class. For them, commencement will be a joyous culmination of their triumph, surrounded by doting parents and draped in ribbons and academic "bling". Then there are the quiet ones, who have about them an injured stillness, because they were not admitted by their schools of choice. For them, commencement day will be bitter-sweet, and the equally well-deserved and hard-won honors and ribbons will feel hollow. As with my stepson, I want to sweep them up and comfort them and tell them none of it matters and they will do fine, but their fragile young-adult dignity won't allow it.

And we, the faculty, soon to pull our regalia out of its year-long slumber and shake off the dust, we will see yet another year end. The students look just as young, but we faculty are greying and more lined, as though we are the painting to the students' Dorian Grey. The yin and yang of academic life, the same patterns played out every year, as we launch our newest fledglings in their season of triumph and defeat.


Anonymous said...

There was a hit on this post from Binghamton, NY, and I wonder if the visitor was drawn by the title and expecting something rather different than one of my elegaic ruminations.

Just saying.


Paul M said...

If it is of any comfort, there is a population boom passing through college application age right now. All of the elite schools are recording record low admission rates. My advice to my own daughter is that college (any college) is an opportunity to close the book on her high school record and start over. No one will ever look at those grades again. I know plenty of people who have done very well after graduating from humble state supported schools.

It is, after all, both Spring and Easter. A chance to start anew.

IT said...

Yes, each commencement is a conclusion; each new matriculation a new beginning. Hard to explain that to a bitterly disappointed 17 year old, though....

NancyP said...

This is good, IT.

Winter and spring are the seasons of fellowship and armed forces hospital assignment letters and job hunts and (hopefully) offers for our senior residents. By this time they are assured some sort of paycheck somewhere, as long as they are diligent. Many are looking to put down roots in a community after 3 sets of moves every four years.

The most anxious people are those with student visas and a desire to stay in the US for a fellowship or academic job, both of which require visa renewal or change of type.

I like reading the Colby College (or Bowdoin College) "This year's freshmen" list as a reminder of the differences between the experiences of the current cohort and my own 1972 freshman cohort.

For example: 2009, has never known computing without the Internet, vs 1972, has never had more than 10 minutes mainframe terminal access at a time, and has submitted simple programs on punch cards. If you have direct access to the mainframe, you may be wearing a sweater, because the mainframe is in a 60 degree F airconditioned room.