Next weekend my youngest child, Anne, will receive a degree from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. This week I feel great joy mixed with supreme melancholy as I anticipate the momentous occasion. I’ve already celebrated my two older daughters’ graduations, but the last child’s college exit is truly a milestone. For the first time in ten years, we’ll have no tuition payments, no more spring breaks to plan around, no 4-5 week Christmas visits, no parents’ weekends to look forward to in the fall. The nest is feeling very empty. It’s time for me to get a life (past time), and time for my youngest daughter to get one, too. But first, indulge my melancholia about her departure from a place we knew virtually nothing about four short years ago.
Sewanee, a school of around 2,000, is truly “a special place” as all the college’s promotional material states. Where else can you attend a university that looks and feels like Oxford on the top of a mountain, surrounded by 12,000 acres of waterfalls, blooming trees, flora and fauna, caves, hiking trails, lakes and bluffs overlooking a green valley, all situated over 50 miles away from anything resembling a bustling city and lovingly referred to as “the Domain?” It’s where students thrive and are truly free to be whoever they want to be for four years…wait, that part is true for most colleges. But Sewanee seems different. It’s a place where tradition dictates that students lightly touch the tops of their cars when entering or exiting the gates to catch their Sewanee angel, and I’m always moved nearly to tears when I sneak a peak in the rearview mirror to see kids in cars behind me all reaching toward the rooftops. It’s a place where students dress up for class and, where every Gowning Day, there’s a ceremony awarding high-achieving students a black gown to wear to class, which is then routinely passed down to future generations of students. It’s a place where, freshman year, a friend of my daughter started a women’s rugby team because she asked permission to do so, where kids who’ve never danced before gleefully perform on stage for audiences at Perpetual Motion weekend, and where students grab their guitars and friends and sing together at various open mike nights across campus, where students line up each Advent to celebrate Lessons and Carols in the chapel, completely covered with cut evergreens, holly and berries from the Domain. It’s a place that celebrates the four seasons, and for our Texas girl that’s been a unique experience. It’s a vacation destination for those who appreciate its beautiful natural surroundings, and the cool mountain air. Our family will miss spending time there each fall with the many wonderful families of our daughter’s friends who have come to be our friends over these four years.
I’ll always remember our first weekend on campus. The Vice-Chancellor spoke to nervous freshmen and their anxious parents, just before we were told it was time for us to move on down the road. “Be Afraid to Try New Things,” was the topic. His message to the students was “Reinvent yourselves but be wary at the same time.” I chuckled, then drove away, teary, that Sunday in August of 2013. Now, as we approach the end of four years, I am afraid it will be even harder to drive away from campus than it was four years ago. Undoubtedly our daughter tried new things, some of which I’d rather not know about. But she was also given opportunities I could never have dreamed of on that August afternoon. She hosted her own radio show for three years as DJ AK, and handled the highest of high-tech equipment in a state of the art listening room on campus. She traveled to France and studied for a summer, where she lived in a gorgeous apartment in Paris with a view of the Seine and a woman who cooked dinner with a small monkey on her shoulder named Lola. She presented a thesis on French separatism and several of her friends came to cheer her on. Her professors became friends and she attended dinners and parties in their homes. Her classmates and chums were from Austin, Nashville, Birmingham, Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York and everywhere betwixt and between. She loved and was loved. She got sick and got through it. She made some bad grades and some good ones. She danced on tables with her girlfriends. (I made that part up, but I bet it happened!) At Sewanee, she wrote and photographed and studied and played and grew and saw that the world is not as large as it once seemed. She learned compassion, empathy and tolerance. And she received continuous encouragement and affirmation for who she was, not who people thought she should be. But, now it’s time to leave.
I’ll let the commencement speakers deliver the words of wisdom, but I want my daughter and her friends to know that this may be the end of college, but it’s just the beginning of bigger and better things. It’s the start of lifelong friendships and gatherings across the miles. Imagine the heights to which you will soar because of this special place and the lessons learned on its 12,000 acres. It may not be evident to you today or next Sunday at graduation, but eventually you’ll find your next place. You’ve been given a sturdy platform from which to jump onto the next one.
Last night my little girl took her final turn at the WUTS-91.3 FM microphone and hosted her last hour as DJ AK. The song she chose to end her session was “Thinking of a Place” by The War on Drugs. Apropos, as she’ll always think of Sewanee with the fondest of memories and a grateful heart, and the future, to her, seems a bit scary.
I’m moving through the dark
Of a long black night
And I’m looking at the moon
And the light it shines
But I’m thinking of a place
And it feels so very real
Oh, it was so full of love!
-Thinking of a Place, The War on Drugs
Oh, and then she snuck in “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac, but that was probably for her dad and me, because she knew we must be listening and we’ll sing it loudly to the rooftops.
If I could
Baby I’d give you my world
Everything’s waiting for you
You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way
-Go Your Own Way, Fleetwood Mac