When Being Known Means Sad Goodbyes

Professor Melanie Springer Mock with senior English majors Ryan Lackey and Julia Howell.
Professor Melanie Springer Mock with senior English majors Ryan Lackey and Julia Howell.
By Melanie Springer Mock, Professor of English

Over 25 years ago this week, I celebrated my first George Fox graduation, as a student. Just days before our processional into an already-overheated Wheeler gymnasium, I stopped by Minthorn Hall to say goodbye to a favorite professor. Yet as I stood at his office door, trying to tell him how much his mentorship had changed me, my professor refused to engage, keeping his head focused on his desk and the papers he needed to grade.

I couldn’t understand why this usually warm, friendly man had suddenly turned distant, and I left his office that day feeling perplexed and a little hurt. It only took me about one decade to figure out why my old professor had acted so disconnected: he couldn’t say goodbye. Or, more pointedly, he couldn’t say goodbye without crying.

Turns out, graduation can be emotionally difficult for faculty members, something I discovered my very first commencement as a professor at George Fox University, and rediscover every April, when graduation rolls around again.

The azaleas are blooming by Bauman Auditorium, the quad is vivid green, and students are sunning themselves by the clock tower: signs that we are at the end of another school year. In a few days, the students we’ve mentored will be graduating, sent out into the world for which we’ve prepared them. My colleagues and I have spent countless hours with these students in class. We’ve talked to them in our offices, prayed for them, invited them into our homes. We’ve celebrated their achievements; sometimes, we’ve chastised them, knowing they could do better.

We’ve developed indelible relationships with our students. And now, we have to say goodbye.

This is the cost, I suppose, of the university’s “Be Known” promise. George Fox faculty promise to know our students, and know them well; we promise students they will develop relationships with professors that would not be possible at bigger, more impersonal campuses.

But this assurance doesn’t often consider the inverse dynamic: That professors will also be known by their students. That professors will be transformed by their students. That the “Be Known” promise comes with the every-year consequence of having to say goodbye.

Each commencement is emotionally taxing, though some years are harder than others. This is probably why I found myself crying onstage last week at our Department of English banquet, trying to hand out awards to our outstanding seniors. I’ve had these seniors in classes, served as their advisor for The Crescent, supervised their work in the Academic Resource Center, and advised their senior theses. I’ve traveled with them to conferences and celebrated their first publications.

At George Fox, we are blessed to have ample opportunity to connect and work with our students, in a variety of settings. And so, when I looked out across the room at all these amazing young people, leaving in a week for their new endeavors, my professorial stoicism gave way to tears. These young people are going to be really, really missed, by me and by my colleagues.

Of course, there is still Facebook and Twitter, alumni newsletters, email, coffee at Chapters, chance encounters in Portland, and a thousand other ways we stay connected to our graduates. Yet after commencement weekend, our relationship to these students will no longer be the same. It might be richer, certainly, as we relate to them more as peers than as acolytes, but still: The unique educational experience with these particular students has ended for us all.

I often tell my seniors that finding some faculty members after the graduation ceremony might be hard. We race off following commencement not because we are eager to finish grading exams and dive into our summer break, but because saying goodbye year after year is exceedingly difficult. This, I realize now, is a casualty of the George Fox University promise: that we know our students well enough to know we will also miss them when they are gone.