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Some Thoughts at Semester's End

May 7, 2014

The end of the semester makes a lot of us maudlin. I start going over the could-haves, the should-haves, the ought-to-have-made-time-fors, the lost-chances. If I'm lucky, the biggest items on that list are things I'll be able to do next year (albeit with a different cast and certainly a different energy).

Right now, the big ticket items for me are: O Circus, a faculty-directed theater production (though I did see one of the on-campus operas!), a Cleveland Orchestra performance at Oberlin (I've seen them perform in Cleveland but it would be beyond fantastic to see them closer to home), a lab crawl, at least one yoga class taught by a college professor (yep), and a Quidditch match.

Of course, these are all things I can do next year, once the students roll back onto campus and everything starts up again.

But there are things I can't do again, conversations that I'll never get to go back for, performers I won't get to see because they'll have graduated, concerts that will not happen again.

I got word early this week that one of my graduate school advisors had passed. For one semester, I was his TA in a class that tasked me to interrogate the accepted definitions of civilization, development, politics, class, and race. He encouraged me to write up a syllabus for my dream course--and then team-teach it with a classmate. In my research, he pushed me to move beyond what I thought was acceptable conversation into the deeper heart of my questions. And when I presented my research to the assembled faculty of my department, he thumped his cane at me and asked me the questions he knew I was prepared for, but which I had not yet asked myself.

George C. Bond was a mentor to many, many students, myself included. He was a fine educator who looked at the relationships between text and history, between class and the creation of historical texts. He wrote about being a black academic in an academy that didn't always appreciate him. He loved the work of Talcott Parsons. His cheeks would lift and his eyes would light up at the mention of Marx. When he became enamored of a theme, question, or idea, his cane would hit the ground in a great thump--both hands clenched across its handle--and he would chew his lips a moment before uttering something unexpected and terrifying.

The time I spent with him was precious. Two academic years is an incredibly short time span for getting to know another human being, especially with the demands of life pressing against you. He was often ill and there were weeks at a time when he wouldn't be able to come to campus. But when he was there, the irrepressible twinkle in his eye would be present and his cane would always be close at hand to add emphasis to any point he was making. Thump. Thump, he'd go, and we'd all sit a little straighter, waiting for his grin to make an appearance and then--and then--

I guess what I'm trying to say is: grab at the opportunities before you. Charge forward to meet them. Invest in the people around you. Follow conversations that will lead you to unexpected places. Take classes that will rile you, and learn from your anger and disappointment. Visit museums. Go to concerts you think you won't like (if you don't like them, don't go again; if you do, remember and return). Embarrass yourself over something you're passionate about. Keep close the people who encourage you to do all of these things, especially those who willingly join you for at least one of them.

I hate to fall back on quotations, but somehow it feels inevitable.

In Moonstruck, a movie that has stuck with me for perhaps far longer than it should have, Ronny Cammerari admonishes Loretta Castorini: "We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die."

It's my favorite scene in the movie. He's angry; she's angry; they're angry at each other and at the world; and somehow it all boils up into this one brilliant, pearlescent summation of life. He's desperate to clue her into what it is that he needs and believes, and all he can do is beg her to live as bravely and presently as she can.

Live passionately. Live with verve. Be present. Listen to those around you: learn from them, be mentored by them, mentor those who follow. The magic is in the relationships you build. Do all you do and know that all you do changes the people around you. And when it comes your turn to share your voice with those you've surrounded yourself with, sit forward just a little bit, enough to be seen. Purse your lips, savoring the words you're about to utter.

And then. And then.

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