by Dan Laskin
Commencement. Again. May is singing its green refrain: new grass, new grass. The lawns are sleek. In the grass-scented village, the kids line up. The procession flutters forward, through the gates, across the stage.
And away. This is one of those moments when they see how time works--that it moves on, shucking the past, pausing only briefly at a few portals into the unknown.
For us, it 's more complicated. We 're part of the parade but also on the sidelines. We imagine ourselves into their lives, looking ahead to weddings, children, glories, regrets, but our sensation--that catch in the throat--belongs also to our looking back. We 're entangled with the kids, but through our own lives. Our youth. Our glories and losses. And maybe our own children, too, who will some day reach this point of departure, or who already have, years ago. We 're tugged by both the future and the past.
At the same time, we 're aware of something strangely artificial in the moment. As the permanent residents of a college campus, we live inside a perpetually repeating cycle. The kids change, but the rhythm forever recurs, from the sweaty discomforts of Convocation, through the vigorous fall, exams, the sullen winter, to the slog through April and then suddenly Commencement-- which, just a few months ago, seemed like it would never arrive but now has overtaken us as if the whole year had never happened at all.
Class of . . . class of . . . class of . . . class of . . . . It goes on. It circles back. The kids graduate. New kids take their place. The grass browns and freezes, then renews itself, its fresh scent at once a revelation and the oldest memory in the world.
Life on a campus suffuses us weirdly with time. In class, we immerse the kids in the past, even as we see that they can never quite get the future out of their minds . . . even as they relish in these college stones, trees, and books an atmosphere of the eternal . . . even as they play carefree in what seems a never-ending present. And through it all, every day, hour by hour, the bells ring out over the lawns, reminding us distantly of schedules, deadlines, endings, pealing out a muffled anxiety, and at the same time soothing us, the round regular tolling a promise that nothing will ever change.
It feels, sometimes, as if we 're buried here in the empty, eternal green. As if time is standing still, while spinning in all directions at once.
We lose track of the generations. Remember Jennifer? Who? Jennifer, remember? Which one? You know, Jennifer. Oh, that Jennifer. She 's what? She 's where? Already?
They come. They work, play, stumble, smarten up, and the next thing we know they 're stopping at the office door to say goodbye. Four years can pass just like that. And, as if to prove it, the very next week after Commencement they come back for Reunion, with receding hairlines and babies in their arms.
It 's disconcerting to see them grow older. On the one hand, it makes us realize how old we ourselves have become. On the other, it reinforces the illusion that we have stayed utterly the same, we who remain here within the changeless cycle.
And of course they count on the place remaining the same. The long straight path. The grass spreading out to lap against the stone foundations. This is where they lined up to graduate, only yesterday.
After the last one has crossed the stage and the last blessing has been given, they flood across the lawn. Give mom a hug. Smile for the camera. Come, we 've spread a blanket for the picnic. The smell of the new grass mingles with the taste of bread.
And then they 're gone. We come back after dinner to stroll in the midwest 's lingering sun, surveying the lawn that, come Monday, will be tidied and mowed. The campus is empty. The sleekness is already beginning to fade. The summer, which will go too quickly, yawns ahead of us.
For the moment, nothing remains. Only their paper cups catching the light, and the green blades bent where they passed.