When I walked out of the Cathedral of Learning for what I thought was the final time, I burst into tears. It was late April so even though I walked out into sun, the air still had that nip of new spring. That teasing feel–like it could recede at any moment. The tulips were out. And the groundskeepers had made the shrubbery sharp for all the new student and parent tours.
I had never seen the university look more beautiful than it did on the day I believed I would leave it forever. My tears were for myself, a uniform joy that I could not hold back.
If you feel unparalleled happiness when you leave the place where you’ve devoted the last 13 years of your life then you can take that as a sign. My exuberant pride and gladness helped me know that walking away from a secure position that had perks was the absolute Right Thing To Do.
I am just now learning how to follow the instincts of my body. The powerful feelings that rise up and overwhelm. Mostly, I have combated feeling with intellect. And this particular cathedral was the perfect citadel for these kinds of feats.
I hated the cathedral from almost the first moment I first arrived. Everything about the tour and the curriculum and the city felt wrong. But I continued anyway. I had a kind of resolute determination created from the sergeant who ran my brain. No matter what I felt, and it was usually a combination of dread and fear, I moved forward. Took classes, taught classes. Researched. Wrote. Defended. Over and over.
After I defended my dissertation, I was only a little bit surprised that thrill and happiness were not present. There wasn’t even pride. I felt numb, and a little confused by all the accolades around me: champagne and gifts. Committee members who hadn’t acknowledged me in years suddenly shaking my hand. No touch could reach me.
There wasn’t even the joy that attends relief. There was a sense of walking the battlefield and assessing your corpses before the next fight.
I took the jobs that were offered and stayed there another four years.
After I made the decision to leave, there began a steady string of strange looks and murmured inquiries from my colleagues. “What happened?” “What will you do?” “Are you ok?”
“Yes! I’m great. I’ve just decided to move on. I don’t know what I’ll do. Something. There’s a book I might write.”
“Ah.” They would say. Barely concealing their skepticism. Their notions that I was willfully crashing all of my airplanes, modest as they were.
One person said, “you look so happy about it.” I felt praise. Which was funny because I had never really felt any there before: over my comments, presentations, papers, or proposals. I had always felt: unknown and grasping for perfection. Not that that was my colleague’s responsibility. It was my own.
But I felt kind of excited that I was emoting “excited.”
When I made the decision to leave, I did not know what I would do for money without my job. Later, in June, a job fell into my lap–almost without my doing anything. And I have learned a lot there. And mostly, laughed often. But I am getting poised to leave again.
(There’s a book I might write).
The day that I cried was not my final exit from the Cathedral. A student emailed, and claimed that he had slipped his final paper under my office door. (Though I told everyone the final, final due date I went back for the paper so I wouldn’t have to fail him). Soon after the office called and claimed there was a box for me in my office. I trudged in, then realized it was not actually a box for me, but mis-marked.
And one of those times was the final, final time that I was there in any kind of official capacity. And my greatest personal accomplishment after all those years of toiling was simply learning how to recognize and express the true joy inside of me.
My colleagues would find that highly suspect and unprofessional.
But it makes me feel excited, and sometimes, I feel a jubilant triumph rising.
And I cry.