Grads need no road map for hope

May 23, 2000|By Bryan MacKay

The season of commencements is upon us.

Although commencement implies forward-looking optimism to a new beginning, I find myself instead reflecting upon my year with this crop of impending graduates.

This is the 20th such cohort to learn the intricacies of photosynthetic electron transport and enzyme inhibition kinetics with me, and in my mind's eye I think of each class as a ranked file passing by my reviewing stand of cell biology. Once past, the students scatter like quail from a peregrine-riven covert, and I rarely see them until graduation ceremonies.

Despite the joy of commencement, there is a wistfulness, even a sadness, as well.

I will never again see most of my students. The bonds formed during their time with me, however tenuous, are now irretrievably broken. I will rejoice in the successes of the occasional graduate of whom news reaches me, but that news is rare. The ivory tower is a haven, but time streams past it, like the inexorable flow of an ocean-bound river.

Commencements are like going to heaven; all sins are forgiven. (At least I forgive those of my students; I hope they forgive me mine.)

After four years of achievement, tears, hard work, frustration, unlooked-for success, quiet satisfaction and occasional argument, both students and professor can bask in the warm satisfaction of a goal achieved. No matter whether the pathway to that goal was circuitous and rocky or direct and easy, it has now been met, and the past is of relevance no longer.

The future stretches ahead endlessly when you are 21, full of promise, rich with idealism. For some of my students, plans for the next few years are clear: medical school, graduate school, a waiting job.

For others, the future is less certain. It's as if a thick fog obscures the proper course; there are forks aplenty, and no clear guidance as to which will be best. Ambiguity abounds; paradox beckons.

But from the lighthouse of commencement ceremonies, the voyage can be undertaken with a stalwart heart and a positive attitude, if not a certain route. The geography of hope does not require a road map.

My students and I line up. They are flushed with excitement, flitting about like butterflies in a sun-dappled field, chattering like birds of the dawn chorus. Dressed in the ceremonial robes of a distant time and place, we will, incongruously, march into the unknowable future as if it is the unchanging past. At this moment in time, at this unique place, life is as good as it gets, and each of us knows it.

The strains of Purcell's "Trumpet Voluntary" drift in from the auditorium, and the line begins to shuffle forward. We move, walking toward the bright light of dreams and hope, and vast potential.

Brian MacKay teaches cell biology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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