It makes me uneasy when the kind and lovely folk find out that I’m graduating from university this spring. The darlings tend to ask, "What then?"
I want to ask them a similarly unanswerable question. After all, graduation is just a slightly more significant than usual future date. Mid-April is coming for you, too, I might respond sourly. And you? What then?
My life is reaching a precarious point of instability. I know this. The sweethearts in the supermarket know this. They probably want to know how afraid, on a scale of one to moving back in with my parents, I am. Maybe they’re just checking my reaction to gauge, with the experience of elders, how badly I’m going to crash land somewhere near adulthood in the coming months.
Maybe they’re just bored, and want to see a little flicker of harmless young-person terror — the kind that comes from casually acknowledging how awful it feels to be ejected from a well-known world into a chaotic void in which you don’t quite fit yet. Perhaps they’re self-indulgently reminding themselves how nice it can be to have a life that hums along at such a constant that, for the moment, barely registers a ripple on the surface of their consciousness.
The funny part about the cuddly, warm people asking the prying but friendly "What then?" is that they seem uninterested in any kind of answer. Maybe they quickly realize they’re not prepared to empathize with a new graduate, who will climb off academia’s ferris wheel and find out that the fair is over, their friends are never coming back, and somebody’s made off with their wallet.
I think what people are really looking for with their patronizing question is that adorable expression your kid cousin makes while he’s deciding if he’ll die or not if he jumps off the high, pointy rock into the lake. We can all laugh at the young when we’re utterly sure that they’ll be fine. Dozens of idiots have jumped off the rock before, and they’ve found jobs in a volatile market, clinging to them desperately until their student loans were paid so they could entertain a real estate purchase while they wait for the bubble to burst and some oil baron to run off with their happy ending.
Over and over again, the long-suffering adult class will have to deal with students falling out of the comparably boozy paradise of scholarship. Maybe "What then?" is a way to subtly welcome new additions to the regular-ticket-price-paying, regular-adult-problem-having, regular-tragedy-bearing class. It is a coded message that translates roughly to "Remember when nobody quite expected anything from you?" or "Remember when you had that amazing sense of direction that no one ever openly suggested was false?"
When the spring rolls around for the "What then?" crowd, nothing has to change in the simple scheme of their lives. The only thing that might move on them may well be their wool sweaters, from the front of their closets to the back.
When spring comes for me this year, as it will for hundreds of college graduates all over this great greying earth, we will have ourselves a precious moment of instability that can take us in many directions all at once. Graduation is some strange institutionalized ritualism, sure, but so far it’s the only known way to send fresh, young alums wobbling into the unknown. The only trick after that is surviving, and if that’s the happy position we find ourselves in post-grad, we’re laughing.
» Natalie Bohrn is a local university student. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org