As is probably true of many liberal arts education experiences, my time as both a government major and a creative writing minor has come with many fascinating lessons. One of the few incontestable right answers has been that there is no right answer — and that James Hutton is known as the father of modern geology, a fact that snagged me two much-needed extra credit points on my first and last earth sciences exam.
It is undoubtedly liberating to know just how many ways there are to approach many of the most challenging questions we’ll face, but after four years it is also impossibly frustrating. In my creative writing courses, one fundamental question will forever haunt the walls of Sanborn Library and my dreams: what is a poem? If I put the diary I kept in fourth grade out on a table, with every instance of a boy’s name passionately Sharpied out in fifth grade for fear of discovery (by whom? Most likely the FBI, based on my only child’s inflated sense of self-importance), would that be a poetic statement on love and societal judgment? Someday I will try this.
But in the meantime, I think that the verbal zest and gymnastics stereotypically associated with a poem are beautiful and important, a tool to evoke an equally essential element, a “verbally inventive moral statement,” to borrow a phrase from Terry Eagleton’s “How to Read a Poem.” Paired with pretty language must be meaning, statement, an exploration of the human condition or at least one human’s condition. It’s a slim conclusion, but a helpful one nonetheless.
Closer than ever to the end of my time at Dartmouth, I’ve felt the common pull to roam, cross items off long-forgotten bucket lists, explore those corners of life in this very singular place that I’ll soon be leaving. But just as often I’ve felt myself pulled to the places that are most familiar, where I feel like I’ve worn an imprint of myself into the walls. The little nook that houses Hinman Box 0059, the first couch to the right in Baker Corridor, a table for two at Umpleby’s, the second floor of Robinson Hall, the scattered tables of Collis porch, the patio outside North Fayerweather and that stunning curve of road where streaming sun and the Connecticut River burst into view on slow, lazy runs returning from Norwich.
These places, I think, are like the language of poetry. They call to mind colors, features, the way light comes through a window. They are accessible and evocative. Over the last 250 years, countless people have watched these places take shape with time. Behind them, however, is my human condition and the meaning that my life has taken in these spaces. My Hinman is a narrow box with a difficult lock, but in years to come I will think of the care packages of macaroni and cheese and gum my father sent there freshman year, and how lucky I feel to have gotten closer to my parents over four years away from them. Umpleby’s will always be the taste of avocado on my grilled cheese, but more importantly the feeling of a rainy Saturday afternoon across the table from a friend, when we had too much work to do but always an extra minute to laugh. From Robo I could see strips of moon behind Baker Tower as I reveled in the accomplishment of each issue of The Mirror, my first true labor of love.
And for each of these places, I will think also of the student at the next table, the hands turning the dial near mine, the hundreds of different things Dartmouth students accomplish every day, each of them evoking their own emotions and memories from the language of their own spaces. Embedded in each of us is every place that has ever been important to us. In just how infinitely and minutely different everyone else’s spaces and moments are, they are infinitely and minutely beautiful. Just as I will never lose mine, they will never lose theirs. That’s how we’ll never lose Dartmouth, and that is pure poetry.
When I graduate I will give my diploma to my parents for safekeeping (the last thing I need is vanilla latte and tear stains on the paper evidence of the last four years), but I will take with me my best friends, my darkest times and proudest moments, a troubled but loyal relationship with Dirt Cowboy, jokes that barely make sense anymore, a chemical dependence on blue Powerade and 10 new things I know now. I don’t always live them, but someday I hope I will:
You will try many times before you perfect your stir-fry order. Even after you find your favorite, don’t be afraid to mix it up.
It’s worth it to get up (relatively) early sometimes, whether it’s for a hike, a breakfast date or a chocolate chip scone. But sleep is also the best, so plan accordingly.
If you don’t like your behavior when you drink, you shouldn’t write it off as drunk behavior. You should drink less.
Dartmouth is bigger than some schools, smaller than others. This is how big it feels: if there’s someone you’re hoping to bump into, they’ll be missing in action for terms at a time. If there’s someone you’re hoping to avoid, they will be anywhere and everywhere you are for a minimum of five weeks.
There will be things you think are impossible in the fall that become reality in the spring. This year I went from being a one-lap-around-Occom runner in October to running my first half marathon in May. If you never have the “impossible” mentality, the reality can come to be a lot faster.
Take only the best care of your friends. Cheer for them, feed them, tell them they matter, hold them when they cry and hold them to a higher standard so you in turn will learn how to be a good person from their example.
If you’re angry, say you’re angry. If you’re sorry, say you’re sorry. For the people who really matter, it will always be okay in the end. If you’re happy, say that, too. That’s not always the default state, and we should never take it for granted.
Finally, you can love Dartmouth while criticizing it and hoping it will change, just as you can take issue with the word choice of a beautiful poem. The truly lovely thing about poetry, about any literature at all, is that it takes much of its shape from the way it is interpreted by its reader, while shaping the reader at the same time. In a few weeks I will leave the space of Dartmouth behind, written into the future by this very special place. Thanks for the memories, and for giving me somewhere in the world to be all of me with everyone I love.