Teri Orr: Graduating over time
Sunday in the Park
Park Record columnist
It happens all your life but never the same as when you are 18. When you finish those years of education leading to a diploma, and freedom of a sort, to map out the rest of your life. Or at least the next chapter.
For maybe one-third of students, this will be their only educational graduation and it is a remarkable accomplishment to have earned that diploma. A high percentage of young people will continue in a place of formal learning: colleges and universities with four or more years resulting in degrees. Many students will immediately join the work force and others will find less traditional paths to follow.
A lucky few will be allowed to take a “gap year,” as it has been named, to travel or work in a foreign land or for a charity. It is an option no one mentioned to me when I was 18. I was the first member of my mother’s side of the family to attend college. I was so very excited to be the first and to be leaving home and living in another state. A number of people on my father’s side died while I was in high school, including my father. It left me with some money to start my life. Going to college actually seemed like an act of rebellion. It was the late ‘60s and even the most vanilla of children living in California, like me, wanted a taste of the radical freedoms spilling out everywhere.
I lived about a half-hour from the Haight Asbury district in San Francisco. A quick, un-congested drive from my little suburbia town into The City and a whole world of color and light and energy awaited.
I remember one Sunday, in the late spring before graduation, seeing the guy who had played Fagan in our high school production of “Oliver” panhandling in Golden Gate Park. He looked worse than his character had. Scruffy and dirty and a bit disoriented. My high school sweetheart and I decided not to approach him. Weeks later — graduation week, to be specific — he was busted for running a drug house in the next town over. He and another student were selling $2,000 a day of mostly marijuana. It was shocking and my first taste of real irony from stage to life. He was “picking a pocket or two” and using younger children to do his bidding.
That fall, when I drove to Greeley, Colorado, in my new red and white Volkswagon van, it was with the headiest sense of freedom.
My home life had been complicated. My mother had just completed her fifth divorce. I had dated the same boy all through high school, and he was going to a different school in Nevada. I knew one girl — not well — who would be at my college.
Those first four months were intoxicating. Late night talks and beer drinking, of course (it was legal at 18 there) and marching for civil rights: a thing my Republican family would be /were appalled about.
When I went home for Thanksgiving, my high school sweetheart proposed. It seemed like a girl like me was lucky to be asked by a guy like him and I said, “yes.” I transferred to Reno in January and left behind all those instant friends I had made in Colorado … and the great teachers and the simple, safe campus.
I was married that June and became pregnant on my honeymoon. I like to say I dropped out of college “to major in motherhood.”
I was abused for the first time by my husband, when I was six months pregnant, at age 19. After two children and a business of my own and house on the lake at Tahoe, I had another graduation I needed, and I divorced my high school sweetheart and started life over. I did not know my financial state. In 18 months, I would be forced to sell my house and my store and run away with my two children to a town I had visited once in the fall. I would be $10,000 in debt and running for my life.
My nearly 40 years in Park City have been filled with endless graduations from jobs to relationships to trying every year to find ways to fill in an education others had and I longed for.
I have always loved learning but of my own making. I am a terrible student in a predictable educational setting: something in my innate rebellious nature about structure and form. Now, with the advent of computers and smart phones and so many places to find information, it is the best of times to be a learner.
Yet education is broken and has been for a very long time. No less than Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have tried to fix it — throwing good money after systems, new buildings, new teachers, more resources but really the same bones. Kids have all the answers in their phone; they see no need to memorize facts. What they need to learn is how to learn.
When I was invited to TED in my 50s, I felt like I had spent my entire life getting ready to go there. The past 10 years have been a Ph.D. in people and new countries and, of course, ideas worth spreading. I am grateful beyond measure for all those people from different places on the planet who have welcomed me into this tribe.
But this weekend when I look at my young friends filled with promise, I will still envy them. All those choices ahead. Those lessons not taught in a classroom. Those corners of the world waiting their exploration. Those discoveries about fellow humans filled with imperfect needs.
To Chris and Jake and Brooke and Liz and all the other seniors who graduate this weekend, see the world and don’t think there is only one way to learn. Dream big. Don’t back down. Take care of your sweet selves. Understand this is just the first of a lifetime of graduations. Be brave and be kind. You were nurtured in a town that loved you all your days, especially Sundays in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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If you moved here in the last 25 years or so, her work was part of your decision.