ZOË SULLIVAN-BLUM- So, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but generally somewhere between high school and college the words for the end of a chapter of your life change. I attended my high school graduation 3 years ago, but over the course of the next few weekends many of my friends will be attending their college commencements. These two words signify the celebration of the end of socially-agreed-upon momentous chapters in our lives. Somehow the term “commencement” seems to be more grown-up than the word “graduation,” as though by aging we are supposed to look forward and no longer back. Either way, we have a word for these stages in our lives.
So why, then, do I not have a word for this? Why is there no commencement or graduation to mark the end of my life in Spain and my return to the United States? We’ve already left high school behind, but haven’t yet been handed our college diplomas. Does that mean there are no momentous occasions in between? Are we supposed to accept the return from abroad with ease, denying ourselves any kind of moment to stop and acknowledge what we’ve done, how we’ve grown. We did have a lovely (and very emotional) goodbye lunch with everyone from the Program during which we were clearly desperate for a graduation/commencement/ceremony of some sort. As we were handed glasses of champagne my friend steadily iterated, “Don’t drink them yet. We need to toast. Susan is gonna say something right? She has to say something. Susan please say something.” Susan, the program alpha and queen, did say a few words, words that made several people (including myself) cry and rush over to bury our lovely director in hugs. But I still felt a gap. I wanted Susan to keep talking. I wanted her to tell us we could do it, we could survive the end of this and embrace what would come next. She did say things to that end—she’s a wonderful speaker, trust me—but as we clapped and drank our first sips of bittersweet champagne I felt like everything was spinning out of my control. I had wanted hours of speeches and multitudes of recognitions of the importance of this time. The waiters were already clearing the tables and people had already bestowed goodbye hugs and donned jackets. Before I knew it I was one of the last two there, finding myself walking out of the restaurant with one of my closest friends on the program, clinging to her arm as if to silently beg her to guide me into the next phase, to show me where to go from here.
I have been putting off writing this post. I knew the last one would have to come, but I don’t think I anticipated just how hard it would be to write. During all of the time spent not writing this post I started to think a lot about one of my favorite childhood books: Bloomability by Sharon Creech. As I flipped through some of the chapters on Google Books I found a quote on just the topic I had been contemplating. This notion of commencement and graduation and endings and beginnings. There it was, written down in the beautiful succinctness only Sharon Creech can manage.
“I kept thinking about those words graduation and commencement, which seemed to be used interchangeably. Graduation seemed like the end of something, and commencement like the beginning. It seemed as if both words were needed, not just one or the other, because this was an end of something, and the beginning of something else.” –Sharon Creech, Bloomability
There are so many good quotes in this book. Looking back, it is still one of my all-time favorites. I can picture it on my over-stuffed bookshelf in my childhood bedroom, dusty from years without being opened. Well, when I get back I am going to brush away that dust, crack the spine once more, and remind myself why that book meant so much to me. Why it means so much to me again. It’ll be my own little commencement in a way, re-reading a book about living and learning in a different place, about return, about home and family and struggle and change. About all the possibilities (“bloomabilities”) that are open to all of us.
It’s true that after this experience we don’t get a diploma. We don’t get to throw our caps in the air or hear our names called through a packed auditorium. But I think we should still give ourselves a commencement. It may be as simple as re-reading an old book, writing a final blog post, or saying goodbye to a favorite new bar. It may be as intense as traveling alone to new countries or trekking across Spain for the Camino de Santiago. It may be as quote on quote “typical” as boarding a plane at Madrid-Barajas and flying home. But all of these ceremonies, all of these steps we take to end our time here, they all matter. They are our commencements, our graduations, and our next steps. However short or customary we tell ourselves our semester abroad has been, it means something. So give yourselves a ceremonial moment to mark the end of this experience. Look at what you’ve done, look at what’s coming next, board that plane, and journey on. Reminisce. Graduate. And commence.