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Shades of the prison house

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, March 17, 2005

The end has, as I’ve been expecting, arrived on schedule. Spring break has come and passed. Like the sun-tans many of us have returned with, the fresh memories of this year’s version of that annual college bacchanal will fade away, taking their place among the ghosts of spring breaks past. Only ill-advised tattoos and cameo appearances on “Girls Gone Wild” will remain. Indeed, Easter, the final respite from class work and last bastion of days off, waits merely a week away. Blame an early start to Lent, but it seems as if the calendar is running on high octane this year. Just past both of these milestones looms graduation – an idea most seniors have been gleefully ignoring, preferring instead to bathe in the forgetting waters of the modern Lethe that is the Linebacker.

I myself find the conclusion to my Notre Dame days suddenly staring starkly at me from its now ever-so-nearby perch at the end of the road I set out upon four years ago. Did I spend my time here appropriately? Did I truly appreciate what for me, like many others, was the fulfillment of a life-long dream? Do I have any Flex Points left?

While so many of us ponder these ultimate questions and more, perhaps more importantly we should ask ourselves if we’re really ready to enter a world where no one’s ever heard of the phrase “student charge, please.” Yes, the last quarter of this year should be a time for examining our core consistencies. Let us ask ourselves what’s truly important, what do we fundamentally value, and will these basic personal building blocks be enough to guide us beyond the borders of Notre Dame Avenue and Angela Boulevard. If we can keep the Dome in our hearts and a smile on our face, I have a feeling we’ll land on our feet.

But beyond all of the usual anxieties of graduation, I find myself in a most precarious position. For some time now I’ve been in a rather serious relationship. As my departure from school looms, I cannot say for certain what will happen to us, my partner and I. I’m growing – we’re growing – and, so it seems, we’re growing apart. At first the changes were gradual. Our meetings grew shorter and less frequent. We’d ignore each other for extended stretches, neither making an effort to reach out to the other. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It just seemed like there was never enough time.

Now when we do meet, it feels as if it’s by custom, not by choice. I can remember a time when we first met at Saint Mary’s when our relationship was as fresh as a fabric softener scent, when we’d sneak off to be together like two young, infatuated lovers. But those days are gone. Now we meet as if we’re romantic historians, paying homage to what once was a mighty match that has since been snuffed out like a candle on Good Friday.

Ah, William Wordsworth, what’s come between us?

I should explain. I’m an English major, a fact that I normally stated with the natural addendum “… but I’m planning on going to law school.” At some point in the major, I became enamored with Wordsworth, the great Romantic British poet with whom I’ve become closely coupled. I’ve read him, written on him, and drawn-up plans for imaginary pilgrimages to his English Lake District home.

This year, however, push came to shove. I am going to law school next year. And that means William Wordsworth and I (who I did indeed meet at Saint Mary’s in a course on British Romanticism) must break up so that I might instead concentrate on tort laws and civil procedures. Fading out are the days when I could sit on the sun-soaked quad with a well-worn anthology of English poetry – coming on strong are the days of case law and contracts, of moot courts and internships.

But I find I’m not alone. For those of us graduating with Arts and Letters diplomas, the clash of aesthetic versus pragmatic is all too real. We would have been in accountancy if we just wanted a job after graduation. No, we wanted something more – to communicate with the great minds and works that get at the heart of what it means to be a thinking person. But, so it seems, money talks and blank verse walks. It’s time to turn in those anthologies for Wall Street Journals, those paperbacks for legal pads.

In the end, I take comfort in the idea that Wordsworth knew what we’re about to go through. “Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy,” Wordsworth wrote. He was talking about the impact of world-weariness on man’s nature. He might as easily have meant trading O’Shag for Madison Avenue.