Being a faculty member at graduation is a strange experience. You feel a little bit like a prop in someone else’s play. We line up, don our caps and gowns, march onto the field, and then, we do nothing. We watch. We lend whatever meager gravity we have to the occasion. Some faculty members skip, but I go every year, to sit and bear witness.
It’s strange because, for the graduates, it’s their graduation, their one walk across the stage, their one handshake with the President of the University, their one capstone to a 4 year sojourner. For us, though, it happens every May. There are usually one or two students that you have special connection with, a handful that you recognize but can’t quite remember because they switched majors after taking your class, but the day passes, and then you take a breath and start thinking about the fall semester.
This year was different for me. This year, I watched a dozen students walk across the platform that I feel especially connected to. I had them as freshman, they toured in my small group, we played together in concerts, and I had them again in my Senior Seminar course. I watched them grow and change. I saw them in the act of becoming.
I wish you could meet these students. They are thoughtful and curious, and already carry inside of them that indefatigable burden of identity, of being musicians. They are dissatisfied with their own limitations, and moreover, they are disciplined and relentless in overcoming them. When they pick up their instruments, their considerable technical ability is placed in service to their musicianship. They are artists, and scholars, and they embrace the particular obligations of both.
Phil Shackleton sat next to me during the ceremony, and I think he sensed what I was thinking – he must have been thinking something similar. He said, “You see a group of students like this leave the school, and you think you’ll never see students like this again. But you will, they are coming up, we just don’t know them yet. It moves in waves.” I have no doubt that he’s right; he has seen this same cycle enough times to know.
But I haven’t. I started teaching at APU in as an adjunct in 2002, and became a professor in 2005. That was 4 years ago. These are my students. The first group that all came through my freshman course when I was the only one teaching it. They are the first-fruits of my idealized hope for what this school could become in the lives of young musicians.
In my more morose moments, I think that the best thing we’ve done as a school is manage not to ruin these students. We’ve allowed whatever they already had inside of them to survive, even to flourish. Maybe we’ve done more than that, but I’m sure that I am not the impartial witness to say what.
I know this; these students, these particular students, have made me a better teacher. They have pushed me to think more deeply about the subjects I’m teaching, to be more engaged with them in their learning. They have allowed me to open up my life to them in ways that might help them see their own path with greater clarity. They have helped me form a better understanding of my own place in this place.
I was proud to stand witness today, to be a passing figure in their pageant. I look forward, with great anticipation, to whatever these fine men and women set their minds to next.