I went to campus to turn in my last library book and maybe clean out the office I’ve had for the past year. It didn’t occur to me that it would be any big deal for me. So I got up to my office and started getting stuff collected and throwing stuff away. I paused to check my e-mail and there it was: the congratulatory e-mail from the thesis office telling me my dissertation was approved and I was good to go for graduation; pretty much the last administrative step down a five year long road.
I managed to get the stuff I needed to take home from my office in one bag and with that last library book in my hand, I went down to the Glasscock Center office and turned in my three keys: the one to my office, the one to the suite, and the one to the building. Then I went to the library and handed in the last of what must have been hundreds of books over the past few years. I didn’t want to leave it in the drop box. I wanted to put it in someone’s hand. To the bored student worker behind the counter, that book was one of dozens she’d handle during her shift. For me, the last book at Sterling Evans Library.
Then I went by my department office to turn in the three keys that gave me access to the spaces I needed as a Graduate Assistant Teacher. No one was in the office, so I wrote a note on a card, stapled it to a rubber band that held the three keys together and left them in an envelope in the admin assistant’s box.
Keys that are issued to you represent a certain amount of trust and responsibility. They’re also how you know you belong. You can get into a space from which most people are restricted. You’re "one of us." Handing those keys in undoes all that. Giving back those keys stamped with the ominous and impersonal “state property DO NOT replicate” on them is tantamount to locking yourself out. Out of the building. Out of the organization. That’s pretty final.
On my way out of the department office I looked in my assigned box, the one that will soon have another grad student´s name on it, more out of reflex than anything. A big envelope contained the course evaluations from the class I taught in the spring semester. I couldn't resist taking a look right there in the empty office. They were statistically the best evaluations I've had in four years of teaching as a grad student. Some of the students wrote nice comments about me on the backs of the forms, reminders that I had done some good on a personal level; that I helped make an obligatory course more fun, meaningful and rewarding for some students. And that’s really what my next profession will be all about.
Cervantes wrote that Alonso Quijano was about 50 years old when he decided to change his name to Don Quixote and strike out on adventures as a knight. I’ll be nine days shy of my 50th birthday when I graduate with the Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies. The Tuesday after I’ll be a professor of Spanish at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (can there be anything more quixotic than to be a professor in the Humanities in 2013?). A new title, new profession, new place and a new environment.
By almost every measure, we’ll be scaling down our lives. I turned in six keys at A&M. They’ll give me two at OBU. In early August we´ll temporarily move into a little duplex right next to campus while we build a new home about half the size of the one we've lived in for nearly eight years. Bryan-College Station have about 150,000 people. Arkadelphia 10,500. Texas A&M will have 50,000 students in the fall. OBU 1,500. But the most important metric: 20 students at a time, will be the same.
Moving your own household goods, especially when you know you’re going to be in a smaller space, makes you look closely at all your stuff and ask, “Do I like this thing so much that I’ll sweat my butt off to carefully protect it, carry it out to a truck, drive it seven hours and unpack it in the August heat?” Boy, that question will make you better at letting stuff go. Am I really going to wear this shirt ever again? No, to Goodwill it goes. Will I ever open this book again? No, to Half-price Books it goes. Is this item I don’t really need useable by someone else? Yes, give it away. No, to the curb for bulk pick-up.
But what about the people you fear you may never see again? It’s been much tougher to delete them from my phone so I haven’t done it. Because it’s those personal relationships you keep and you carry with you and they don’t take up any room on the truck. People you studied and partied with. People you worshiped and prayed with. People you coached with. People you trained and raced and suffered and crashed with. Those people have given me keys to themselves that I’ll never have to give back.