A building sits on the spot where I graduated from college.
On that day, 40 springs ago, my college — the one where I now teach — held its commencement ceremony outdoors, under a tent. The ground upon which I received my diploma now is occupied by a lovely building devoted to nurturing the fine arts.
That’s how time works.
I don’t remember many of the details of the ceremony itself — who the speaker was, what the speaker said or even the moment when I walked across the stage and grasped my diploma.
What I do recall is the swelter of emotions within and around me. I knew I was leaving something and some people and that I was launching into something new and unknown.
Those were strange and unsettling days.
The country had been in upheaval for much of the four years I was in school. Gas shortages, rising inflation and slowed job growth — what was called “stagflation” at the time — had turned the economy into a quagmire.
Iranian extremists had seized American hostages and held them for more than a year. All my peers were old enough to remember Vietnam. In my dorm, we had several long chats about the possibility that we’d be sent off, again, to fight another endless war.
We had a new president. These days, Americans remember Ronald Reagan as an avuncular figure, a man of easygoing, genial charm.
As he rose to power, though, he carried with him a reputation as a bomb-thrower, one who escalated rather than defused tensions wherever he went. In the late days of the campaign that elevated him to the Oval Office, a joke made the rounds.
“What’s sandy and glows in the dark? Iran, if Reagan is elected.”
Trading jibes about nuclear holocaust was a way to deal with the anxiety of the time. That unease was not diminished when an unbalanced young man with an unhealthy attachment to a teenage actress shot Reagan and several other people.
The president survived, but there was a sense that the world could come apart at any moment.
That sense was heightened by the insularity of my college days.
Mine was a small school. Fewer than 80 of us crossed the stage that long-ago May day.
Those were, as now, difficult days for small colleges. Many went under during the late 1970s.
At the time, my school seemed always on the edge of disaster, kept alive, as my Southern Indiana relatives and ancestors would say, “only by main will and determination.”
The fact that our college seemed on the edge of extinction toughened us in some ways. In others, it blinded us to larger realities.
I do remember thinking, as I slipped into my cap and gown that day, that I was about to leave my little pond for the ocean. The thought both exhilarated and terrified.
I had accepted a teaching fellowship to go to grad school in St. Louis. Where that would lead, I did not know. I was filled with inchoate longings to write, to lead a life of the mind and engage with ideas and events, but the how of getting there eluded me.
I could not imagine how a guy from such a small place could find work as big as his dreams.
I did not know, as I sat there in my robe, that the offer to write during the coming summer for The Indianapolis News — the offer that opened up exactly the life I wanted — was only days away. I had not yet come to appreciate the ways that life and the world can surprise, even astonish, one with possibility.
Instead, I sat there as graduates always have and always will, reflecting on where I had been and the people I had known—and pondering what lay ahead.
On that day in those uncertain times, I thought about how the future seemed to stretch out, all those unknown days ahead that would be filled with hope and dread, joy and sadness, opportunity and peril.
The future beckoned, and it frightened.
As it always does and always will.