“So, what are you doing after graduation?”
I erupt in hives every time I hear this question. I almost don’t want to graduate so that I never have to face the realities that lurk on the other side of it—so that I don’t have to deal with the “What next?” and the “What now?”
I’ve taken to laughing in response to this question. “Ha-ha! Good one!” I feel like saying. “As if I have a plan! You’re a real jokester, eh?” Nobody’s ever satisfied by this, though. They don’t laugh. They want a hard copy of my 5-year plan, bullet point by bullet point, cross-referenced and leather-bound, with an index, a table of contents, and an acknowledgements page. I don’t have that, though.
When I was a senior in high school and people asked me what I was doing after graduation, it was like, “Oh, I know this answer! This is an easy one—I’m going to college!” It was prescribed for me. I didn’t have to think about what I was doing after high school because college was already mapped out for someone academically-inclined like me; I was just following the orders, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” chapter book—“If you do well in high school, turn to Chapter 18: Your First Day of College!” The first few years of college were nice, too, because people only asked as far as to find out when I graduated, but I could maneuver my way around the impending Question I felt they wanted to ask by talking about how I was adjusting to college and what sort of classes I was getting myself into.
But college was the end-goal. I’ve spent my whole life trudging through the academic system, and college was the finish line—to graduate college means you finished the race! I didn’t think much beyond it, and honestly, I didn’t think much through it; I was just doing what was the “proper” course of action.
I’m a month away from graduation and I’ve only fantasized about post-grad life. What will it be like to experience springtime and not be in class? I tell myself I’ll finally clean my apartment once I don’t have homework anymore. I try to figure out what I’ll say to all the customers at the restaurant I work at who ask me if I’m a student, and what I’m supposed to say to them now. Right now I happily tell them I’m graduating soon; what will I say in two months? As if they feel the need to interview my qualifications for their tip. My boyfriend cleverly suggested I tell them that I’m “thinking about grad school.” I have never once thought about grad school.
It makes sense for a lot of people to go to grad school. It wouldn’t make sense for me to go to grad school. It almost didn’t even make sense for me to go for my undergraduate, considering what I’ve been studying—English, which in a lot of ways, I’ve been studying my whole life, through the books I read and the stories I write. I will say that college has taught me more than I ever thought it could, in arenas I never expected to learn and grow from. Grad school would be pointless though. It would be more money, time, homework, essays, stress, and debt; I believe there is nothing I can get from grad school that I can’t get from the library, from the internet, from community clubs, from volunteering, from traveling. And besides all that, my career prospects aren’t all that ambitious.
This is what I tell people I want to do, and I’ll let you know how they respond in a minute. What I want to do more than anything, is to experience and write. I want to work odd jobs, like serving at a restaurant, or window-washing, or truck-driving, or maintaining trails at a state park. I want to move around this world and find peculiar or entry-level jobs, and I want to learn about how these systems that operate around us work, like the restaurant industry or the library circulation process. I want to meet people of all varieties and listen to their perspectives and learn from their hearts. I want to indulge in experiences I’ve never known before, like running through Seattle rain or having the wind whip my hair in my face on the shore of the Pacific Ocean—they don’t have to be glamorous experiences, but how will I ever know if I don’t scoop the orange North Carolina soil in my own palms or wrinkle my nose at the odor of urine on a San Francisco street? I will know one day, because I will it.
And out of all of that, I want to write about it. Please hear me: I must write about these things. You will read about them, too! I will support myself, somehow. And I will nurture my soul. And that is really, really what I want to do this next moment in life.
I tell people that, in more or fewer words. They look at me blankly. They almost repeat the question to me: “So… What are you doing after graduation?” Because it’s not a career or prescribed for me, they don’t understand. “So… no grad school?” “So… where are you going?” “So… have you looked at any jobs?”
No, no, and no, and that’s the brilliance of it: the great freedom. I’ve finally wormed my way out of the system. I’ve checked a couple boxes until I’ve reached a point where I can upset the table, tossing it over, sending the square check-box plates crashing and skidding across the kitchen tile, having finished my breakfast, and now—oh now, the day has begun.
It is not easy operating against the current of people’s disappointment. They want me to go to grad school because I’m such a good student. Or, they want me to find a career in editing because that would be more stable of a prospect. Or, they want me to stay in the area so I can continue seeing my extended family once every six months for a few hours at a familial obligation where they can ask me questions like, “So what are you doing after graduation?” It’s not easy to feel like people are willing you to do something else when you don’t feel any inclination to adhere.
We are all just trying to make a life for ourselves. So, people do what they have to do to pay the bills. Sometimes that’s enough. I tend to pull back a lot, look at life through this weird, distant scope, which can be detrimental to my mood on some days; I’ll creep beneath the covers and tremble, wondering at why I should expel any energy if the end point of existence is so futile. But sometimes it can inspire me in other ways, so greatly that I nearly tear apart with how full I am of love and excitement. This is your life!! We are all so lucky!! The grass feels so wholesome beneath my feet, the wind so soft upon my cheek. I cry either way, sometimes. From misery. From happiness.
But this polar existence allows me to have a unique perspective about what I do. If I’m up late one night writing a paper, I have a weird duality of emotions: “Forget this paper; it’s stupid,” versus “This paper is stupid, but I will learn something from it.” And so understanding all this, I realize that I need to respect my rare chance at life enough to do with it what I want, how I think I should best live it. Gently slipping away from all the grasping hands, slyly maneuvering away from their nudging—I will go this way, the way I feel is right for me.
This is all very hard to explain as I’m holding a customer’s dirty plate in hand, after I’ve dropped off the check and they snag me with the, “So, are you a student?” question, which inevitably leads to the, “So, what are you doing after graduation?” question. I laugh. I glance at the dirty plate, at the other tables in my section who need me to get them drinks or run their food. Do I need to justify myself to these strangers? They are kind, and I don’t want to be rude, but I know they won’t be satisfied with my answers. Maybe I’ll lie to them; “Oh, I’m thinking about grad school.” Thinking about it never being an option, that is.
Right now, though, until I graduate, I’m truthfully just thinking about my next assignment. About the one I’ll set to work on as soon as I’m done writing this, about the hundreds of pages I have to read this weekend between work and my birthday celebrations. I’m thinking about how I need to get toothpaste, and I’m thinking about when I’ll next be able to curl up into my boyfriend’s tight embrace. I’m also thinking about, vaguely, the life I will finally create for myself after this semester ends in a month. I’m trying to take it one thing at a time, the way I must do in stressful times, so that I don’t get too lost in the future that I forget to absorb the scene around me, which I will probably write about one day, like this old couple bickering about where to sit in this Panera. I’ll listen to them bicker, and when I have my period of meditation after I graduate, I’ll think about where I want to go, and make it happen. Trust me, and trust in me. I’ll be just great after graduation.