By Kelly Foster
My favorite new word came inadvertently and secondhand through my boyfriend’s father earlier this year. Speaking to his brother at their father’s funeral, he asked, “Do you have a tic-tac or something? Cause your breath’s just kind of medium.”
The first time Ben relayed this story to me, I laughed so hard the soymilk I was drinking came out my nose.
So between my boyfriend, family, and close friends, “medium” has acquired its own cult status as a near universally applicable word for a feeling that so rarely finds voice—not quite good, not quite bad, not quite even indifferent. Just medium. I love it. It’s s a great word.
“How was your day?”
“How’s your steak?”
“Eh, it’s about medium.”
“How do you like your new haircut?”
“Medium to medium well.”
All that to say that when it came to my high school GPA, I was about medium smart.
Out of a tiny class of thirty students, I carved out a solid ninth place ranking.
I’d like to blame it all on my ineptitude in the hard sciences—chemistry, geometry, trigonometry, cell biology. But I think a more likely culprit was the fact that I rarely, if ever, did my homework, even in English and History. I was one of those students, the kind I now commiserate about in exasperated tones with my fellow faculty members as we eat our cafeteria salads and Lean Cuisines over the Conference Room table.
It took me until graduate school to really begin doing any homework in earnest, and even then I was hardly consistent. I am not and may never become a happy little worker bee. It takes too much time away from staring out of windows.
Last night, we had our Upper School graduation out by the lake on campus in the blistering heat. The faculty line up, swathed in our bloody sweltering regalia, sweat rolling down our velvet-hooded backs, behind the requisite bagpiper, then split to form a sort of tunnel through which students pass.
I teach at a good school, despite my own medium dedication to academics as a high school student. And even as I perused the program last night with the line-up of the admittedly impressive schools to which my students will soon be journeying—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Berkeley and so on—I felt a tug of my own former ambivalence about these things and the growth they necessarily imbue. And I felt a tug of ambivalence about the ceremony itself, about these artificial rites of passage that are meant to signify so much, but often matter so little.
The students who speak, with varying degrees of humor and insight, say what they are expected to say on such occasions.
“Today marks a transition from childhood to adulthood.”
“Though we are sad to leave, we look bravely forward to what lies ahead.”
I know that something concrete does happen at a high school graduation. A student moves away from home, sometimes very far away. Parents have a newly empty room in the house and a newly empty seat at the table. These are real changes, and they make us sad. I understand that.
I remember vividly the day my parents dropped me off at my dorm room for the first time. We went to pick up some essentials at K-Mart and after they helped me move them to my third floor room, they turned to leave and my unthinking impulse was to follow behind them. Then all at once, I realized I was not going with them. I was staying. We were no longer an inviolable unit. I was something else, something outside, and what I was, however unknown and unnamable, felt cavernous.
Although I acknowledge that poignant and actual shifts occur immediately post high school, it could also be said that nothing of significance necessarily happens in a high school graduation. There may be no causal connection between the rite of passage and passage itself.
Whatever is intrinsic to any student—a taste in music, a cadence of speaking, a preference for salty to sweet, a fear of crowds, straight or curly hair—will remain mostly intrinsic to that student. Adulthood is shy and does not always come when beckoned and unfortunately, also does not necessarily retreat when we might want it to.
I wish I were a more credulous participant in many ceremonies, graduation not least among them. I remember reading Rilke as a college freshman and being struck by this line and calling up to recent memory my own high school graduation, “The seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside.”
So if I could envision any reality in which I was more than a medium student, in which I had more than just my classroom podium as a venue to address the students that processed in front of me last night, I would say something similar to Rilke:
Pay attention. Pay attention or you’ll miss it. You’ll miss the moment, so much less celebrated and colorful than this one. You won’t be tossing your mortarboard in the air. You won’t be draped in a blue robe. You’ll be rounding a corner in a hot car. You’ll be buying your own deodorant. You’ll be meeting a friend for drinks at midnight and no one will be waiting up for you.
You’ll watch lightning menace the Western horizon, and then you’ll know, I am where I was told I would be. It’s so much better and worse than they predicted. You will know this, and then rain will hit your face and if you are very lucky, you will have hours just to sit—to sit and stare out of any available windows—for as long as you want.