May and June bring beaming graduates, on the brinks of their new lives. At Buffalo State College, where I have been a faculty member since 1985, we delight in our students. They range in age from "traditional" to "old enough to be the parents of" their traditional classmates. Each experiences the thrill of possibilities. Like graduates around the world, they were reminded that their commencements are not only endings, but also beginnings. How true.
In May, three people with 20-plus years in their fields retired, and commenced: Liane Hansen, host of "Weekend Edition" on National Public Radio, Oprah Winfrey and me. All of us chose to make our transitions before they were required. At the risk of immodestly connecting myself to these two legendary women, I expect that each of us experienced insights similar to the commencing college graduates, and figured out the same truth.
"Why?" was likely asked of Liane and Oprah, as it was of me. And there is no precise answer, except that "it is time."
Our worlds are very different, but each of us has been touched by the illness and death of loved ones. Taking our leave while healthy makes sense. Additionally, the decision emerged from looking back at what we had accomplished, and what was still left to do. The siren call of the new could no longer be found in what awaited us each morning, in the lives we had carved out for decades. Instead, it was time to gently close the doors on our known careers, and open new ones.
While packing up, Liane, Oprah, each college graduate and I found mementos. Likely, we all found things like these:
*Special gifts. In my office, it is the paperweight from Alyssa, one of my first, most serious, students.
*Framed pictures. Liane and Oprah's walls were likely filled with photos of legendary people from across the decades -- imagine. I looked anew at each of my pictures of family and friends, reliving forgotten events.
*Mementos of proud moments. Diplomas, awards, certificates, conference badges: these illustrated our lives. Liane and Oprah must have so much evidence of how they had changed the world -- college graduates, not so much. I paused to reflect on my impact. Ultimately, I was most moved by thank-you cards from students and colleagues; each summoned up a unique relationship, and someone's perception of a difference I had made.
What we will miss most is the people. College graduates feel the sharp loss of people they knew -- intimately, exuberantly -- for four years. Liane, Oprah and I each had the extraordinary opportunity to intertwine our lives with many people. These shared professional lives are the reflection pools within which we see ourselves.
We smile to remember weddings, births, graduations, promotions. We have jokes that only we understand. We comforted each other through sorrow, diagnosis, suffering and relief after surgeries. We were family. Some of these people will remain in our lives, but those connections will not be the easy "see you Monday" we have had for so long. Just like our graduates, we will have to find other ways to maintain relationships that have sustained us.
As we all start new chapters of our lives, we begin with a fresh question. It is not, "What do I have to do?" but "What will I do?" Our horizons are infinite as we commence.