It’s back-to-school season in Chapel Hill. Students choke Franklin Street like kudzu, and I nearly hit them with my car, astonished at how much greener this year’s crop looks than the last. Surely my college days were marked by at least the illusion of slightly more maturity than these kids convey. I am not exaggerating when I say I can no longer reliably tell the difference between a 15 year old and a college freshman.
I haven’t yet stopped marking the passage of time in terms of an academic calendar, even though I handed in my last graded assignment in 2005. I was not a conscientious student in the traditional sense, but like most of us, I find it hard to escape the well-worn rituals of my school days. My alarm didn’t go off this morning, and in my first disoriented moments of wakeful panic, my dread was that I was late for the first day of school, not late for work. I’ve stuck close to college towns since my own graduation, since that’s where my people congregate and where it’s easiest to find the kind of work I’m equipped to do. I am also keenly attuned to the school year because my partner is staring down one last year of graduate school, and the better I keep in step with those textbook rhythms, the better able I am to be supportive in the rest of our shared life.
The things I miss about school tend not to be the things that took place in classrooms. I miss being able to drive on a Wednesday afternoon to a concert five hours away, then drive back in time to catch a Thursday morning class. I don’t miss trying to write short stories after a full day’s work and a full night’s reading. I miss skipping classes to meet publication deadlines for the arts magazine I edited. I don’t miss buying science textbooks.
But what I miss least about college is the illusion that I could achieve competence in any body of knowledge during the course of one semester, one lab, one minor, one major. The trajectory of my education strongly implied an endpoint, a moment at which I would finally arrive, sure in the knowledge of … something. There is a relentlessness to this kind of education that belies the truth of learning. I was never taught the conviction that I would some day fully grasp anything worth knowing. Maybe it was in one of the lessons I skipped, but it seems like the kind of thing that would have been on the final.College did offer a built-in community, and in the absence of shared classes and enforced proximity, building and maintaining that kind of camaraderie has proven difficult, especially in a town where most people are just passing through. Maybe it’s thanks to this practice that I’ve gotten better at making friends quicker. Maybe it’s also due to my friends’ transience that I feel increasingly guilty about being a shoddy correspondent when it comes to my farther-flung people. Can this post count as a letter to all of you?
I will say this for the structured learning environment: there are some things I absolutely can’t pick up any other way. I’ve moved three times now with an acoustic guitar that I still can’t play for the life of me. It was given to me to celebrate the end of graduate school and the bounty of time I would have to learn it. I also can’t seem to finish a short story without those onerous deadlines. My sense these days that I don’t have time for such things is as much an illusion as the one that promises those of us who’ve paid our share of tuition that we’ll eventually possess a discrete body of knowledge.
Attainment is folly. Everything I can name leads to another question. As long as I can keep asking, I’ll be okay.
Every two weeks some friends and I create new posts on the same topic. This week’s synchroblog posts — asking “Are we there yet?” — are listed on our group blog, The Creative Collective. Please read them all.