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What they never tell you about teaching...

Alissa Wilkinson

DSC_9529_1_t670 “What they never tell you about teaching,” I say to my colleague as we're climbing the steps from the vestry to the sanctuary, “is that graduation is the worst.”

He nods knowingly. Graduation is the worst. Not because it means melting into grossness underneath a scratchy cap, billowy robe, and velvet hood every year right as the weather is going from warmish to hot—though a few hours beneath the hot lights has, on occasion, made me curse silently and wish for a popsicle.

No, to me the reason is simple. I always hated my own graduations because they were sad, and they involved all these awkward goodbyes where you said “see you later” but what you really meant was “maybe I'll see you some day, and maybe I won't, but I don't want this to feel too final.” I hated the feeling of being dropped off a cliff, of missing all the structured life from the past four years, the comfortable circles of friends, disappearing into thin air as if they never existed outside pictures and some scattered memories.

But what I discovered when I became a professor was that you have to do that every year.

The college I teach at is small and we have only four majors, and I teach some of the core courses in our largest major. So by the time they reach their senior year, some of those students have had a class with me every semester since they were freshmen. And freshmen are funny, especially where I teach: they're new to New York City, usually a little on the hopelessly clueless side, scared but bright-eyed and ready to take on the world.

Over the course of four years, I try to unseat their world a bit, help them root out some of the things they never thought about, hold them up to the light, turn them and look at them from every angle, and then help them build a more solid foundation. I see it happen over and over, and I see them — in some real way — grow up. Then I see them at graduation and realize: they're adults. They may still be 21- and 22-year-olds, with all the attendant weaknesses and insecurities, but they're not children anymore, and I had a part in that.

It makes me feel responsible, and lately it makes me wish I had more opportunities in my life to stop and ceremoniously look at the people around me and notice that they've changed. And that I've changed. That we are changing each other.