A New, Post-School Rhythm
I am, above all, a creature of habit. I eat the same thing for lunch every day, go to the same restaurants, drive the same route home, have the same conversations with my friends, even write some of the same columns - again and again.
Last night I had a dream I've had every year since the first grade, always just at the beginning of summer. In this dream, somehow I have not finished up all my homework, and am thus back in school trying to finish it long after I should have moved on to something new. My teachers or professors seem oblivious to my plight, as though this day were just like any other day in the term. As they heap forgotten assignments on me, I become more and more suspicious: How could all of this work have piled up without me hearing about it?
The dream always ends with the sudden realization that I'll never finish all the extra work on time because summer has already begun. I wake up in a cold sweat, wondering if I should feel relieved that it was all a dream or guilty that I'll never truly finish.
This time it's different.
Even for a creature of habit, the concept of leaving behind an annual rhythm of 18 years is an attractive one. Of course, many of the features associated with school gradually fall away as one progresses through the grades. At first you have just one teacher, one room, one set of classmates, and just a handful of tasks to complete during the school day. Then they introduce the idea of "homework," begin shuffling you between schoolrooms at intervals prescribed by a bell, and allow you to choose what you want from the cafeteria.
Soon you're driving to school on your own. Then, in perhaps the most disturbing phase, you live there. But at the same time you learn to skip classes without feeling guilty (you did learn that, I hope), decide what you want to learn and what you don't, and finally figure out how you're going to make it up to yourself and to your pocketbook for spending so much of your life doing this. This school thing.
And when you finally decide to call it quits with school, what next? That's the question I don't have an answer to yet. Even if I did, I wouldn't know what it means, since it will be - better be - completely different from everything that came before. Anyway, I hope I can make it so.
Every year for as long as I can remember I've taken the measure of summer by looking up. At the end of spring, the star Spica in the constellation Virgo is high in the evening sky. As the days slip by, the glare of the setting sun begins to encroach upon Virgo's appendages. Spica is a bright star, and it fights the dusk for as long as it can. But Virgo is a zodiacal constellation, and the sun must pass directly in front of it before winter can come. I'd always taken Spica's yearly disappearance as a kind of summer Groundhog Day - an indication that school was just around the corner. No longer.
For centuries each month's moon was named after the agricultural event associated with that month in the growing season. There was the harvest moon, the cherry moon, and the hunter's moon. Now that fewer people live on farms the moon is just the moon again.
Now that school is over for me, all my habitual ways of looking at the world fall away as well. Work is just work. The end of this school year is really the end. And most of all, the stars are just the stars again.