Originally a post on the Facebook wall from May 6, 2017. Edited now a year after the fact to say: these words still resonate, and I feel all the same things, and more.
Graduation day feels as weird today as it ever has, for me.
I’ll be there at Tusculum today, and please say hi. But understand if I’m a bit far away.
One of the neatest groups of students that I had was the honors seminar I taught in Fall of 2013 at Virginia Intermont College. It was super-timely – our topic started out as standardized testing (our books were Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test and Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System) but it quickly shifted into talking about what we expect out of education and what the future of education should be. At one point I envisioned it as a start to those students’ careers and an encouragement for them to be critical as they went through education, but it turned into a set of very real lessons on the days that were to come.
If some people had cared a bit more about the fate and future of our institutions than the money that was or wasn’t somewhere, the freshmen in that seminar would have been graduating from Virginia Intermont College today.
Many of them are graduating – but from institutions far and wide, in circumstances that have been fraught. At least one already completed her degree; a couple of others have a way to go, and a couple I’ve just completely lost track of, and it kills me.
On the one hand, that group was where my work at Virginia Intermont was just getting started. On the other, it was the group I had to shepherd out the door. There are so many things about VI’s end that break my heart, but the thought what that group would have become and of the continuity they could have provided for the college’s next chapter is the one thing I can’t get over, the one thing that is the cruelest.
As if that wasn’t enough to be tearing at my heart, the end of VI tossed me into a completely different situation at Tennessee Tech, one that was by its very definition “temporary” but with relationships with students that were every bit as meaningful.
I’ve seen news of med school and dental school and pharmacy school and every kind of professional school admissions clogging my social media feeds these past few days, and it’s wonderful, but it’s also very melancholy. So much of the circumstances at Tech kept me from building the kinds of relationships with students that I had built other places. I was able to catch glimpses of students here and there, but not see the full person develop. It was a deeply frustrating environment to work in, simply because of its size; some people adapt well and work well in that environment, and that’s a wonderful thing. I never did.
That doesn’t make the heartache for the people who make up that wonderful community in Cookeville any less real, though. For all my difficulty fitting in to that community (and for all the burden from the circumstances that put me in that community in the first place), Tennessee Technological University is one of our best. There’s far more good that happens there than bad. The people who make that place go are among our best educators and scholars, and I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.
And the students who are graduating from Tech today are nothing short of remarkable. So many who are so incredibly talented, and who are so well equipped for the next stage of their lives. I’m incredibly proud of them.
I knew as 2016 was winding down that if the opportunity presented itself, I needed to be back in a small college setting and I needed to be investing the time getting to know the small place and the individuals that make up the community. That’s why I’m here. I’m very grateful for that. I’m even more grateful that place is East Tennessee, in this part of the country I love dearly. I know there are going to be far happier graduation days ahead.
In another circumstance, I’d list the names of graduates who I knew who I was grateful for; I’ve done that on a day like to day in the past. But I’d be typing forever, and I’d be forgetting a LOT of people who don’t need to have their accomplishments minimized.
This will have to do.
Graduates: I love you, and I’m so proud of you. I love you, and we need your talents so desperately. I love you, and I believe you will make a better future for us.