Archived Story

When graduating isn’t all we expected

Published 9:30am Thursday, August 18, 2011

Column: Notes from Home

“Graduation just wasn’t what I was expecting,” the young man said to me. “It’s as if everything’s still the same, but isn’t.”

What was he expecting? He couldn’t say. Just something different, some sense that a major goal had been achieved. He thought he had accomplished something, but now felt like he hadn’t, not really. If anything, it had left a kind of emptiness behind.

Graduating seemed to have brought almost no changes to his life.

He hung out with or avoided the same people from high school. He had the same daily routine – wake up, eat, get nagged by his parents, go to work, eat lunch, work some more, get nagged some more, work out (sometimes), eat supper, play Xbox or computer games, go to sleep. He talked about being in a kind of holding pattern; he walked across the stage the beginning of June and he doesn’t move into his dorm room until the beginning of September.

Is it the waiting around that explains this disconnect between expectations and reality? Because I remember similar feelings of emptiness and a lack of something I was expecting after graduating from high school.

How about those graduates who aren’t going anywhere or waiting for anything, who graduate from high school into permanent jobs or marriages or boot camp right away, without the lag time between ending one thing and starting the next. Do they feel substantially different after graduation? Is there less emptiness in their lives this first summer after walking across that stage?

My observations tell me it’s pretty much the same story for them, too, but I don’t know enough young people who make those choices to know for sure — if the difference between satisfaction and discontent really flows from waiting around versus jumping into something permanent right away.

What’s going on? Is graduation really not as important as we think? What about the achievement of the other major goals in our lives? Do we have skewed expectations of what these big events mean, too?

I think it’s about trying to find happiness, at least in part. That noble concept was important enough to our political ancestors that they enshrined it in the Declaration of Independence, along with the pursuit of life and liberty. However, what I’ve learned is that the actual achievement of happiness is elusive. We focus our energies on pursuit, on getting that thing or reaching that goal so that — finally — we will be happy. Then we get the thing or reach the goal, but happiness isn’t there waiting for us.

Not much comfort in that.

So what does graduation mean, if not something that’s supposed to make us happy?

What are we supposed to feel after we walk across that stage?

We have achieved something, after all, even if it’s only jumping through the hoops set up by society and school officials. We have survived. For me, high school graduation was more about survival than anything else. It meant I could leave the chaotic social situation of adolescence behind. No more high school dramas. No more awkward social situations — or so I thought, since the social dramas of college and career were both still ahead of me.

Still, graduations do mean something to me, as if each one became a doorway to the next part of the journey. Or as if they were like passing tests.

Maybe passing tests is a better metaphor. After all, so many American youth now live in states that require the passing of tests before diplomas can be certified.

“Life is a series of tests,” Sherlock Holmes says at the conclusion of one of his mysteries. “And the last one,” he goes on to say, “is the most important.” By that he means death and what comes after. And that, too, is part of each graduation — each milestone means we’ve gotten through (or used up) that much more of our lives.

Again, not much comfort in these words.

I do not think I was able to ease my friend’s discontent; I tend to look at the darker side of things. But maybe using language to try to describe his discontent helped a little.

Sometimes naming things does that for people.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column usually appears every other Tuesday.