Fifteen years ago this week, I got kicked out of boarding school. It's strange to think it's been that long. You might ask how I could get kicked out of anywhere, since I am obviously well-behaved by temperament. Knowing you, you would be more likely to make some wisecrack about what I might have been doing to get kicked out, and the actual story is far less entertaining than what you might attempt to embarrass me by imagining. I will spare you the details but, in brief, it became obvious that although I was not ready to graduate, the school was no longer doing me any good. I was on a need-based scholarship at the time, and the money and effort being expended in my direction could be better applied to some other kid. They did not put it like that to me. My boarding school’s culture was bizarrely insular and single-minded, and the official line was that anyone who wanted to graduate could, and therefore the only reason why anyone would not want to graduate was bad character. Not that anybody put it like that, either, but I got the message. You can imagine my feelings, I think, upon being kicked out. You know how attached I can get.
Several years later, I wrote several haiku, one of them was about that October 6th, long ago. None of my haiku were accepted for publication, so I will finally give that one its due now;
The day I left them
The trees burned orange, the sky
Blue all the way down.
I’m fond of it. Do you like it? As the poem describes, it was one of those gorgeous fall days when only good things should happen, and in retrospect getting kicked out was a very good thing for me, though it felt like crap at the time.
And now I am leaving another school, under very different circumstances. As I told you the other day, I am done my thesis, and now need only wait until the next conferral date to get my degree and actually be a Master of Science. I can hardly believe it. It has been a long time coming, yes, plus I am one of those people for whom failure seems more real than success. It’s not that I don’t think I’ve earned this; I have. I got excellent grades on my thesis itself and I was pleased but not at all surprised. But it’s like how I experienced the seasons at boarding school. I arrived there in winter, right after a heavy snow, and that first winter was long and cold and lined with white. The first bear I ever saw was walking across the tennis courts on campus in the snow that year, right at the beginning of Easter break, looking very thin. And ever after that, though I spent five summers at that school, the green and warmth of a New England summer has always felt like an illusion.
This week I’ve been engaged in preparing my thesis to be printed and bound. It isn’t a difficult process, just a couple of forms to track down and sign, but I was bizarrely anxious about it. It took me a good whole minute to get up the gumption to fill in the name of my adviser on one of the forms, because I was afraid I was going to get his middle initial wrong. Now, I’ve known his middle initial as long as I’ve known yours. While I don’t know what his middle initial stands for, but I know perfectly well what it is. I’m just being twitchy. Psychologically, I seem to be something of an amphibious creature. I tend to think details are important, just as you seem to. Unlike you, I am not very good at thinking about details. I am very good at thinking about abstract concepts, and I’ve got the good grades to prove it, but then I get all hung up worrying I’m going to get this or that detail wrong and they aren’t even the details that matter. So what if I got my adviser’s middle initial wrong? Somebody would notice and I’d feel embarrassed and then the sun would come up the next morning and everything will be fine.
Fall is falling. I went for a walk the other morning, to take the sense of the season. Mushrooms grey and brown and round as coins sprout from the grass or the softened wood of old tree stumps. Ferns pale to a translucent straw color or bronze down like cherry wood, depending on species. It was wet that morning, it’s been a wet week, and the white pine needles were clumped up like the fur of a drenched cat. Birch and maple leaves drop gently through the dripping air. The plants have begun their strategic retreat from the cold.
The sun is leaving for the year. A friend of mine just left the country, also for the year. I’ll be heading south myself in a few weeks. I am migratory like the geese, I and my mate with me. My friends and I scatter like old, yellowed pine needles, blow away separately in a stiff, raw breeze. But the pines and birches and maples will all wake to the same communities again in the spring. A tree is as much an intersection of relationships as it is a thing in its own right. A goose paddles on a pond whose location can be described in terms of distance, so far to here, so far to there. Where is a context. Who is a location in a web. Even if I migrate back to this town in the spring, I will not come back to here, this school. I can no longer say who I am as graduate student.
Do not get me wrong; I'm pleased as punch to be done with this and go on to the next thing. I no longer attach to whole schools in quite the same way as I did when I was younger. I'm also entirely confident that a lot of people like me, and that some subset of the people who like me will remain in my life for a long time or a little, and I am comfortable with that. It's just that living things belong somewhere and have some role in the system that defines them, and right now I don't know what mine is.