One Final Evening

Nearby, I can hear the sound of the 10, a waterfall of asphalt and rubber. A helicopter putters past overhead, and there is the sudden, tubular flare of a motorcycle—a big one—climbing the on-ramp just a few blocks away. Mockingbirds swoop from fence to wire down the long line of backyards in this part of town, and the small, gray bird nesting in an angle of my porch roof has bedded down with her eggs for the night. The twilight sky has reached the moment when, if I could, I would break a shard from it to light my way in the darkness.

Meanwhile, up in the village, every restaurant is full, every corner crowded. Claremont, Calif., is a college town, of course, and the parents have arrived for graduation. They have put their simulacra through college, and now they are all dining out in a haze of anticipatory nostalgia. I know the feeling. I graduated from this place—Pomona College—a long time ago, and I remember the eerie sensation of seeing so many adults who looked so surprisingly like their younger selves. I remember the nostalgia, too.

I have never had children, so, for me, there is something a little extra in coming to semester’s end with the students I’ve taught. Week by week, I watch their thoughts get clearer and clearer until, suddenly, my students are able to say things we can no longer quite account for. One by one, they come into focus, to me and to each other, in their writing. Just why this should be such a beautiful thing I have never figured out, unless perhaps it’s this: Even at their age, they carry such a weight of life. They are such experts in the particulars of their circumstances. They have the strange and impermanent gift of not knowing how much they know.

One by one, I’ve talked to my students about what comes next. There are plans, places. Beijing, France, Woods Hole, London. Schools of every kind, and every kind of service, as well. One by one, my students express their longing and their sense of loss as they get ready to leave this place. I tell them to keep in touch, to write and to send me what they’re writing. I am the constant one. I am now a voice in their heads, a voice that will sound surprisingly familiar to them the next time we talk. Yet only a few of them will keep up the uneven acquaintance of professor and student, which is just as it should be.

What I get in return is the knowledge of who they are at this very moment. I get to see, through the writing they’ve done for me, how life appears to them just now. And looking at my students, I can only wonder who I was all those years ago, on this same night, this one final evening. But I am long forgotten, even to myself. Tomorrow I leave this place like everyone else, and what I will think of is that nest in the porch roof and how the last light shone through the leaves of the orange tree before I sat down to write.

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