As we continue to negotiate the age of COVID-19, I had an inkling it would be a good time to retrieve an op-ed I saved from the now defunct Baltimore Evening Sun. I had no idea at the time whether it would ever serve a legitimate purpose later in life, but it was well written and dispensed wonderful advice about adulthood, so I kept it.
After rooting through several files in the space that currently serves as the classroom where I instruct my students through distance learning, I found the article, crinkled, smudged and ragged around the edges from where I tore it out of the newspaper 31 years ago.
It is particularly relevant today in light of a recent conversation I had with one of my graduating students about his college plans, which, like many fellow members in this year’s graduating class, have been disrupted and turned upside down by the coronavirus.
The piece was about the joys of college, written affectionately by a Baltimore lawyer named Charles S. Fax. Mr. Fax captured in vivid Technicolor what I felt then as a recent newlywed and first-time father adjusting to the responsibilities of life after college.
As recent high school graduates were packing their bags to begin their freshman year, Mr. Fax’s assertion was simple and straightforward: College was more than just about getting a degree. It was also about experiencing the new and the untried, as well as a time to test your ability to handle the discomfort that comes from leaving the safety of adolescence. So, go and have fun. “Do it all, and remember it all,” he said.
The reason was simple. Upon graduation, he counseled, life will change. Bills, mortgages, careers, the responsibility of raising children and saving for their education — all of these facts of life would present themselves to you at some point after college.
He was right, of course, both about college and life afterward. And now, as a teacher getting ready to say goodbye to a group of seniors virtually who graduate on Saturday, I wonder about the uncertainty this year’s graduates face as they get ready to embark on their journey toward adulthood and greater responsibility
I think back to the beginning of my college career in amazement. It was equal parts frustration and joy. It was also a period of bewilderment, one where I learned to sink or swim on my own. Eventually I learned to swim with the generous help of several guardian angels who thought enough of me to throw a life preserver in my direction at the first sounds of gurgling. But times have changed. The freedom, happiness and frustration I found in college to explore new ground and rise or fall on my own wasn’t sullied by a deadly pandemic, a sight the class of 2020 is staring at head on.
So what should you do? No one, certainly not me, has a definitive answer. Science is making incremental advances, and progress is slow, as it should be in this case. But if colleges open in the fall, I have some thoughts and suggestions.
This year’s graduates should realize that colleges are doing everything in their power to ensure their students’ safety. Faculty and administrators understand that students believe learning in an environment free from health risks is a right, not just an expectation. There is nothing more oxymoronic than having to practice social distancing where one of the main goals is socialization. But these safety measures will protect you until bright minds unlock the secrets of this virus.
Next, remember to take courses that lead to enjoyment, as well as a career. If you want to major in business, take a history course. You’re a science geek? Take a studio art course to complement it. They might be the ones you remember the most about college.
Finally, and perhaps most important, there is no better time to lessen the divide that separates so many of us politically, socially and economically. So compensate for the need to practice social distancing by becoming closer, rather than moving farther away, to those you disagree with. Engage them in discussions. Challenge them, and let them challenge you. It is one of the foundations of a well-rounded education, and it will prepare you better for life afterward.
If you do these things, even under the difficult and trying circumstances presented today by the coronavirus, I’m betting college will still deliver on the promise Mr. Fax said it would. It will be, he wrote, the best years of your life.
Lee McC. Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a teacher in the history department at The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland.