I didn’t actually realise what a momentous day it was. It was a dreary Friday, there was rain on the way, and I’d gotten up at six am to do a few hours of reading for those increasingly worrying essays whose deadlines had begun to loom with disturbing menace.
Red-eyed, yawning, and shivering from the cold, I’d made my way to campus and dragged my sleep-deprived body up countless flights of stairs to reach a small, stuffy little classroom in a back building. I pulled out pen and notepad, as I always do (I’m endearingly old-fashioned in this respect, until essay-writing season comes round, and I begin spewing out incredibly unladylike volleys of swear words as I search desperately for a three-word summary of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories that I scribbled in an almost-illegible hand ten weeks before). Then, scrunching up my sleep-deprived eyes, I tried to switch my brain into ‘concentrate’ mode so that my professor’s outline didn’t blur alarmingly every time I glanced at them. That I failed totally in this attempt is evidenced by the fact that the first two questions I answered in-class were directed at three identical, fuzzy figures. I can only hope my professor wasn’t alarmed by the fact that I appeared to be giving an answer to the whiteboard eraser.
The entire class passed in a similar sleep-deprived haze, and it wasn’t until the very end, as we were all packing up our things, that one of my classmates exclaimed, “I can’t believe this is our last class ever!”. If this had been any other semester, this remark wouldn’t have been that momentous. But this time it was different – there was a special significance to her words that it took me a moment to fully grasp.
This wasn’t just the last class of the semester. Or the last class of first year, or any other year for that matter – it was our last class ever, and I’d completely missed its significance.
I’ve been at university for five years now. In fact, I’ve been a student for most of my life: since the age of six, I’ve been putting on uniforms, writing essays (okay, maybe not from the age of six, unless you count a few polemics on which Spice Girls single is better [in case you’re wondering, the answer is always ‘Stop Right Now’]), and writing ‘Occupation: Student’ on airport immigration cards and tax forms. Learning has been my only consistent and engrossing occupation since before I knew how to tie my shoelaces.
So, as you can imagine, it’s a little daunting to realise that my days of staring at whiteboards and overhead projectors is over. That I may never take another university class, and that my days of addressing my teachers as ‘Mr Smith’ and ‘Professor Brown’ may very well be over. The fact that the one, stable aspect of my identity, the one which has helped me anchor myself and understand my place within society, is gradually disappearing.
I’ve always defined myself as a learner. Since I was a little girl, my life has been predicated on the assumption that I have more learning to do, that I am in perpetual and constant need of knowledge, like a bubble-making machine that’s constantly running out of washing liquid. When you’re little the idea of finishing university is so very distant that you imagine that once you’re finished, you’ll have all the answers. You’ll be so smart. You will finally have reached the end of an eighteen-year journey and somehow, miraculously, you will have got your shit together.
And now here I am, at the end of my university career (well, at least the part that involves being taught at), and what do I feel? I feel, if it’s possible, even less secure than that adorable six-year-old with her little pigtails and the school backpack that is three times her size and weighs, from memory, roughly as much as a baby seal. My lifetime of learning has not succeeded in giving me all the answers – it has only succeeded in making me understand that, in some ways, I know almost nothing at all. My life at university has been one of constantly learning about all the things that I have yet to learn about. This, as you can probably imagine, is an incredibly sobering thought.
But knowledge is like that. It’s not solid. It’s not eternal. It fluctuates, and moves, and changes shapes. It disappears for many years, only to resurface thanks to the strangest and most confusing of stimuli: television programs, Taylor Swift concerts, visits to the aquarium. Most of all, it demands constant expansion, addition, re-evaluation. Knowledge is the greediest, hungriest friend you will ever know. It pushes you to new heights, it calls you out on your prejudices and assumptions, and sometimes, at the most wonderful times, it surprises you with a burst of the purest inspiration. It’s a source of self-confidence and self-appreciation, but sometimes it also smacks you in the back of the head when you’re not looking, as its own strange way of reminding you that it must not be allowed to stagnate, that knowledge will only contribute to your own development if you develop it in return.
I already know that my university career is not over. But the part in which I assume I have nothing, that I am a sponge waiting to absorb, is over. I’m moving on to a new period of my life in which I have to begin with the assumption that all the knowledge I have acquired over the years has a use, and that use is to contribute to my own original thinking. I’m moving on to a period in which, it is assumed, I have knowledge that may be useful to others. This doesn’t mean I’m a teacher. It just means that I’m not quite a student any more either.
Here’s what I know (perhaps the only piece of knowledge I’m sure about at this juncture): learning is a lifelong pursuit. It doesn’t stop the moment you exit your last-ever university class as a student, or the moment you enter your first-ever university class as a teacher. It doesn’t end on your first day in the private sector, and it certainly doesn’t end on the day you retire from the workforce forever. Learning is eternally wanting. Knowledge is never complete.
It’s for this reason that, although I was a little saddened by the revelation that I had been sitting in my last-ever university class, I didn’t feel a sense of irreparable loss, of panic at an uncertain future. Sure, I have an Arts degree in a cold, unstable, and materially-obsessed world. And I have no idea what to do with the knowledge that I’ve carefully collected over the years, nor whether I will be able to find a job which utilises that specific knowledge. But I do know that no matter how I end up making my money in the future, I already have a career: I am, and will always be, a learner. I will always be unsatisfied with what I know. I will be forever in search of answers, many of which I will never find. This is okay: I will find different answers, even if they’re not the ones that I originally imagined. I will question. I will wonder (in both senses of the word). I will be curious, and critical, and sometimes amazed.
This, then, is what I discovered on my last day as a student: that it was not, and indeed will never truly be, my last day as a learner.