Professor Udo Fehn walked into his class every Tuesday and Thursday, clad in suit and tie and carrying a brown, boxy briefcase. He would set down the case and stroll over to the projector controls, turn it on, pull out his laptop and promptly start the lesson. His jokes were in rhythm you came to expect a funny anecdote or a slice of dead pan humor. Every class after a test, he handed back graded copies. And for computational examples, he carried around notes on yellow steno paper, paper clipped together and stored in a manila folder. It was his style simplistic and congenial.
But this was the last semester that style will permeate classrooms. After over 30 years in the Earth and Environmental Science Department, Professor Fehn will be retiring.
I’ve known him for a little over a year. He was my Take Five adviser, and I only (finally) took a class with him this past semester. But his retirement seems to coincide strongly in my mind with what most seniors are planning on doing after this year: They are retiring as students. Leaving that part behind, they will trade in a backpack, like Fehn will trade in his briefcase, for something different be it a suit or a beer or an even larger backpack, which they will carry on their back as they schlep through China.
There have been times in the past month where I’ve wondered if I don’t wish I was a part of that procession elsewhere times where I’ve felt, not unfamiliarly, like a younger sibling watching her older brothers leave home, wishing she had also taken the opportunity to jump ship.
But I will not be moving on. Next semester, I will be a Take Five Scholar. While academically I am fully confident in my choice, I’m still trying to figure out if, when it comes to life, I have simply stalled. When someone told me I only had one year before paying back student loans and being charged full price for a slice of pizza at Great Northern Pizza Kitchen, I panicked and scampered to turn back time.
Some people make the decision-making process look easy. They decide to go to Northwestern University for a Chemistry PhD. program as steadfastly as they decide to eat breakfast in the morning. They see an opportunity to go to business school and dive right in without a second thought, as if it were a swimming pool on an August day. They understand the concept of a timeline in a novel, that sequences have beginnings, middles, then ends.
Other students, arguably as admirably, don’t like making decisions and don’t think about time limits. And they just don’t sweat it.
I’m left struggling somewhere in the middle, not quite believing in timelines but not quite sure if I’m OK with that. Since realizing this, I’ve since found myself in a state of constant self-consolation.
It’s tough, after all, to be able to look at something and say you’ve accomplished what you wanted to and realize it’s time to go &- and even more difficult to look at something and realize you haven’t accomplished all that you wanted to, yet still know it’s time. There is certainly something becoming, after all, about someone who can close a chapter, even when they know it won’t be completely without regret.
But, for me, I don’t think that’s all. Last month, I interviewed a woman about her friend, whom I was writing a story about. They had known each other for over 30-years a very thick chapter. She described him, told stories and smiled. And then she said excuse me and grabbed a tissue. Tears welled up in her eyes. I stared, foolishly speechless. My life wasn’t even as long as her friendship my perspective was crap.
Yet I felt oddly encouraged. I suppose that I do hope that in 30 years, I will be sitting somewhere, unintentionally spilling out emotions to a near stranger because something has been so significant that I can’t close that chapter too quickly.
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.