The following is taken from a speech given in Charlottesville on March 14th, 2012, to an audience of students and alumni from the University of Virginia. The speech is a reflection on the passing of four years of college and a contemplation of the ways in which that time mirrors the passage of the phases of a lifetime.
Another spring … another spring approaches us, and again it is signaled by the same signs. Afternoon classrooms are getting warm again, musty in the dusk heat, and again they’re visited by our yearly guests: high school seniors, those future college kids and potential Cavaliers. Their presence here is one of many nods that another year at Virginia is rounding the corner, approaching its final turn, again sprinting to its finish. But the sudden onset of spring this year has been an especially bittersweet occasion given that it marks my last season at the University of Virginia. After what seemed like an invincible, endless string of days and nights, I know now that I have seen more sunsets here than I will see. Gabriel García Márquez crafted a memorable phrase for the last phase of a man’s life; he called it, “the autumn of the patriarch.” And that’s where I and the rest of my class find ourselves now in our college lives. Our autumn in springtime. Our leaves budding just as they fall. We patriarchs at twenty-two.
And here, in that spirit, I want to say and attempt to summarize what I think college life is, and how it parallels—in more ways than you’d think—real life.
This is how it goes.
Your first year starts the carefree childhood of your college days. You’re thrust from the stultifying summer after high school into a world freshly colored with freedom. There are no rules because you haven’t been taught them yet. It’s the time you can do anything, and there aren’t any repercussions, because, like a child, you don’t know any better. You learn new things and you meet new people every day; you look at the fourth years preparing to exit as a kid sees his grandparents, thinking, That will never be me. No, I’m the exception here. I don’t know how I did it, or why it’s just me, but I’ll stay like this forever.
Second year you start to become a young adult. It’s your twenties and thirties. You’ve finally moved into your own place and you’re getting comfortable around here. Your friends are settled in too, and man, are you all the coolest, tightest bunch of pals in the history of the world. You throw some parties, stay up late; you go out and drink and meet some pretty people you like and want to get to like you. You refrain from acting like a total idiot though, like you used to do when you were a kid, because you know the rules now. You have some older friends, and you know some younger people too. It’s a weird realization that there are people coming up behind you in the world, but that’s all right because you’re still young. You don’t really have to worry about your future that much, but you still prepare for it because people tell you to. So you start taking steps towards it.
Next you’re middle aged, a third year. You’re respected and known due to the reputation you’ve built. You have a solidified group of friends your age, while you know a set of people below you and have a network of friends ahead. You don’t really have to worry about the end because there’s still that group of older people ahead of you. They are the buffer protecting you from having to ponder your exit. This is the age where you have both authority and energy. You’re fresh enough to still swing, and you’re old enough to know the ropes.
But soon it’s your fourth year. Senior. Citizenry. This is the beginning of your end. Oddly enough, a strange thing has happened to this college world of yours as you return in those late summer days for your final year. It somehow looks less familiar than it did when you last left. You’ll try to figure out why this is so and realize that it’s because the fourth years of last year aren’t here anymore. They’ve passed on. They were some of your most intimate friends, your strongest allies, and the only surviving witnesses who had seen you grow from your beginning. And now that they’re gone, there’s a void. And it won’t, and can’t, be filled, because they can’t be brought back. As Christopher Hitchens noted, it’s a melancholy lesson of aging: the realization that, once you pass a certain point, you cannot make old friends. And with those older friends gone—like the older siblings, aunts, fathers and grandmothers who will exit Earth before you—the world loses some of its essence, some of its nature. It lacks what once colored and textured it for you. And no new friend will ever bring that back.
Moreover, you realize that your past has solidified into something real. All of those college experiences—tailgates and spring breaks, all-nighters and bonfires—have turned from incidents into anecdotes. Floating frozen in amber, this is now your history. It eases the ache of the lost presence of those older friends because you now have the immense company of the past on your side. It sustains you. Remember it. Hold it in the fist of your soul. Yet this same past also seems to intensify a sharp and melancholic pang: you know that after this year, these college friendships will be put on hold. They will still be there, forever, but they will simply have to stagnate.
Soon the calendar becomes an enemy. Each day it ticks off represents more and more stripped away from less and less. But because of this, you, strangely enough, revert to your beginning days, your starting out days, days when everything was freshly surprising. Walks to class take on new value; you realize how few are the days left in which you’ll wear a backpack. You start to notice again how the Rotunda looks in the mist of an early morning, how Old Cabell Hall smells, what it sounds like on the quads at twilight. Your senses reawaken to what they had become anesthetized to, because everything has taken on a renewed preciousness as it dwindles. The novelist Martin Amis talks about living late life in what he calls “a farewell mode,” where you transition from saying ‘hi’ to the world to saying ‘bye’. And that’s where you are. It’s spring. You start preparing your final bows as flowers clutter the stage and the curtains begin to close.
Still, the coming of our high school visitors also hints at a more subtle change. As we make room for them in our classrooms, we are prefiguring that moment when we’ll make room for their entire upcoming class. When they—all young and wide-eyed as you once were—will see their dorms for the first time and settle into this place for their next four years. And moreover, my class—this most bright and loyal of classes—will after that day be forever making room for that class and the classes which will follow, allowing them the same pleasures we’ve had here, making room for them just as the fourth years did when we were those wide-eyed kids, anxious and eager in this place for the first time, three years ago. I once heard it said that the day your first child is born is the day you’ll actually understand you’re going to die. It’s not a resentful feeling in the least, but rather the realization that you’re taking your place among the genealogical hierarchy. You’ve got to go because you’ve got to make some room.
One of the greatest poets of the 19th century was Alexander Pushkin, a brilliant writer who died foolishly at the age of thirty-seven after being shot in his twenty-ninth duel. But he was a genius, and he wrote a striking poetic line about children:
It will be our descendants who
Out of this world will crowd us too.
So they crowd us out. And just like newborns do to their proud parents, the next class is soon to crowd us from Charlottesville. We go so that they can come. It’d be the peak of selfishness or stupidity to pretend that you’ll just stick around here forever. It has to end. Sure there are things we’ve left undone. And sure I know that in the future I’ll be wanting to come back to do some things just one more time—back to the Lawn, back to the Virginian, back to Mad Bowl for pick-up football. One more time. One more time. But there’s consolation to be found in the fact that you’d always have left some things undone—even if you were in college for another hundred years—and you’d always want to go back and do some things again. That’s the thing about time—it’s finite so it makes you pick what you want to do with it. The same goes for life as it does for college life.
Now college may, as I’ve heard it declared on countless occasions, be the best time of your life. But how can you be sure that’s true unless you move on to do something else? And what kind of life would it be if you never got the chance to grow up—to rise to the full height of your true potential and actually put to use what you’ve learned? It’d be stifling and eventually hellish if you were forced to stay here forever. Always a college kid. Always running around Charlottesville. There’d be no point to ever doing it in the first place.
The American historian Wallace Stegner once observed that if roses lasted forever we’d look on them like weeds. In other words, the rarity and brevity of a thing are inseparable from its value. And it is in that same way that the forty-five months of life bookended by the fall of first year and spring of fourth are to be cherished because they do—let’s now admit—slip by in a blink.
Still, the coming years here will be no less bright just because you won’t be around to see them. In our place will be the next class, living out their own time at Virginia, just as we have. And soon they’ll be sitting in our shoes, as fourth years, in the autumn spring of their college lives, imparting their shards of advice as they move on to follow us into the world. And it is in thinking of those younger girls and boys that we should avoid any resentment in leaving, regardless of how tempting it may be. Instead, we should have dignity, remembering all we’ve learned along the way. We should give thanks, reflecting upon so many golden, glorious moments here. We should feel contentment, accepting that we—like those who came before and those that will follow—were given a finite and fixed amount time here, no more, no less. Finally, we should feel no resentment, but instead appreciation and gratitude—those impulses that lie furthest from the acidity and bitterness of vain anger.
I want to end this speech by returning to those lines about our descendants crowding us from the earth. Pushkin followed them with a forward-looking affirmation that I want to address to you all, if I may:
So fill yourselves until you’re sated
On this unstable life, my friends
It’s nullity I’ve always hated,
I know too surely how this ends.