Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Philosophy of Time

I grew up, for all intents and purposes, on a college campus. Before you get images of a six-year-old Mel wandering around frat parties in a toga and learning how to tap a keg before she even learned cursive, let me explain. My dad worked for a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, his alma mater and what would become my alma mater as well. With a small school like that, a community of sorts builds around the faculty, staff, and their families. Many hours of my youth were spent at college sporting events or playing hide and seek among the maze of filing cabinets in my dad's office or visiting my dad for lunch during breaks. Many of the professors knew me in diapers and were called "Uncle" by my sis and me. When I became a student there myself, there were professors whose classes I "boycotted" because I just felt awkward taking classes with people I knew so well. When my dad died, the first people to arrive on our doorstep to offer comfort were people from the college. My love for that institution runs deep because it is my home -- emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Since graduating and starting my career, the time I spend on campus is admittedly little even though it's just located across town. Part of it is the fact that my career consumes so much of my time. Part of it is that it's a tough place to be without my dad. Just driving by the building where he worked for the majority of my life can give me a bit of a lump in my throat, and there's a small part of me that still expects to see him bouncing out the door. The times when I do tend to go back are usually to see a play or, lately, for a memorial service.

You see, those professors I grew up idolizing and eventually learning from are growing older, and despite what I may have suspected as a kid who would beg Dad to let me come have lunch with him and his friends in the Gizmo (the campus snack bar), they're proving to be mortal. In the past two years or so, three of these men who were fixtures of my youth have passed away, prompting the hosting of memorial services on campus. I always go to these services partly to pay respect to people who helped shape me but also because I kind of imagine it's something my dad would expect of me -- to go as his family representative.

I attended such a service today. As I looked around, I saw all these familiar faces -- people I've known longer than just about anyone outside of my family. There was my faculty adviser; there was the professor who taught me everything I know about writing (and grading writing); there was the woman who'd worked across the hall from my dad for decades; there was the professor who was the first one to tell me that I would be making a huge mistake if I didn't go into teaching. The thing is that these people are now, well, old. Hair is grey that didn't used to be. Weight has been gained or lost. Canes are present that weren't there before. The characters remained the same despite the betrayal of the outer shell. And then the thought occurred to me that I'M older, too. There might be grey hairs lurking under the ginger. Weight has most definitely been gained or lost (depending on when they last saw me). The little girl or saucy co-ed that exists in their memories is no more ... on the outside. It led me to ponder the very nature of time and come to the startling conclusion that time is a bitch.

As I listened to the stories that these people shared about their lost friend, I felt a profound sense of sadness. I'd lost a family friend, someone I'd never even had as a professor in class (largely because the thought of taking a philosophy class in college just intimidated the stuffing out of me). These people had lost a buddy, a partner, a friend. The stories they shared so vividly are now just memories, and the figures who populate those stories are slowly disappearing. This is a community that has been rocked by the loss of paragon after paragon, and the campus I grew up on is not the same one that some precocious little kid would grow up on today and it seems so weird to me that there are students attending the school who wouldn't understand the stories that my friends and I have of certain professors and their classes. How lucky we were to get on campus when these legends were still in their prime, before they succumbed to retirement and loss. I thought of how bonded in time my classmates and I are with classes before us in ways that younger students will never understand. And I felt sorry for those younger students. Even though I know their experience is a rich one, they are deprived of some incredible times -- both in the classroom and out.

Deeply philosophical for a Thursday afternoon in July, no?


Mike said...

This a really beautiful post, Mel. Maybe a little bit too much for me sitting at my desk but moving nonetheless.

It's funny you should mention Knox and pitying the youth for what they are missing because I've been thinking this week about how much college is wasted on the young, specifically young me, I've been reading the books we read in my Existentialism class this week. I enjoy them so much more than I did when I was taking the class and can skim it and still understand what it's all about at a much higher level than I could my sophomore/junior year (whenever I was considering philosophy to be one of my double majors I never took) and I'd like nothing more than to repeat all of my Knox classes at 35.

Though doing the reading assignments again (or in some cases, probably the first time) is enjoyable, being able to talk about it again with Professor Pahel would be fantastic. At Knox, even professors who weren't someone I had tons of contact with are still easily men and women who inspire thoughts of fondness, and I didn't even grow up there.

(Well, I did kind of, just not in terms of years.)

Mel said...

Thanks, Mike. I would be such a better student today than I was back then (and I wasn't too bad back then!). I've often thought about how I would love to go back and re-do some classes or take classes I never took. I regret never taking any philosophy classes, I'm sorry I opted not to take Art History, and I really wish I had taken a religion class. I could easily read those things on my own, but the structure of a classroom and the discussion opportunities with the incredible people we had teaching us cannot be duplicated.

NICKI said...

I don't know why philosophy would scare the stuffing out of you!

Patty said...

Brilliant once again, Miss Agar. :) -- A fellow campus kid (albeit a younger generation...)