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Preparing to Return After a Difficult SemesterJennifer Sullivan
Senior year of high school is full of goodbyes. The last fall semester comes and goes, followed too quickly by spring. Athletes play their hardest on the fields they’ve grown to love, actors perform on their favorite stage for the final time, and all of the small goodbyes slowly add up. I said goodbye to basketball, had my last high school spring break, and danced at my final prom. Even as I tried to come to terms with the mountain-sized pile of things I’d already left behind, I held onto each thing I had yet to say goodbye to. But it was no easy task.
My friend calls the human reaction to an experience coming to an end “windowing” and sees it every year at the sleepaway camp where he is a counselor. The term comes from the “window of vulnerability” that occurs when people face large transitions. These reactions are understandably more apparent in a group of seven-year-olds leaving camp. He described the different ways each child behaves in their final days — there’s the kid who cries constantly, the one who starts to complain about everything and says they can’t wait to go home, the one who stays in their bunk and refuses to participate in any activities, the one who pretends they aren’t leaving, and everything in between. Their reactions sound dramatic, but the truth is, I’ve related to each one of these types throughout my goodbye process.
At first, I was the kid who pretended camp wasn’t ending, ignoring it at all costs. I breezed through my first senior semester, submitting college applications and then distracting myself to avoid the thought of my future. The difficulties of applying to and deciding on a college kept my mind occupied, and I wasn’t thinking about what I’d be leaving behind when I actually went.
Once I clicked the “yes” button that sealed my four-year fate, the stress of the college decision process was finally over and I was relieved. At last, I knew where I was going to college, but the excitement was quickly overshadowed with dread.
After I was committed to a school, avoidance was no longer an option. So, I moved on to being the complainer. It was not my proudest moment, but the thing about windowing is you can’t always control it. Very unlike how I’d treated the rest of my high school experience, I began complaining about my school, my teachers, and some of the people in my grade. Most of this was to my mom, who listened carefully and gently reminded me of the windowing concept I’d been the one to tell her about in the first place. I think I was subconsciously feeling that, if high school was something I hated, leaving it behind would be easier. I kept talking about the college I’ll be attending and the amazing people I’d meet. Of course, this was just a way to avoid contemplating all the ones I’d have to leave. I tried to focus on everything I won’t miss instead of everything I will which was easier in the moment, but only made it worse when I finally faced the fact that, in some capacity, I will miss it all.
This new understanding led me to being — you guessed it — the crier. I’m not someone who cries very often, so this caught me off guard. During my final week of classes one of my friends said something small along the lines of, “Wow, this is our second to last high school history class.” That comment opened my eyes to how close it all was to ending. Despite my best efforts at holding it in, I couldn’t any longer. Looking around at my friends, teachers, and even people I’d never talked to, I felt unbearably sad about the prospect of never sharing the same experience with these people again. So soon we’d all be living separate lives apart from one another. I was heading to a completely unknown place.
The last few days of school didn’t feel real. I tried to enjoy them, but it was hard to smile and laugh without thinking about the moments I’d miss. All the times I was overwhelmed with homework or social conflict didn’t matter anymore. I saw only the echoing laughter around lunch tables, the rare lighthearted classes with a review game, and all the lazy free periods spent laying on the grass with friends, forgetting about our to-do lists. The memories with friends were the hardest to contemplate because I would never get to experience daily life with my favorite people again. It was a painful cycle of wanting to appreciate my time, feeling sad when I encountered more “lasts,” and being disappointed when I felt sad because I wanted to appreciate my time. It was unbearably confusing, but necessary.
By the time I walked out of the doors to my school for the last time, I had already processed it all. It didn’t make leaving classmates, teachers, and coaches behind any less daunting, but it was a start. I was calm as I drove away from high school for the last time because I knew I was ready to start something new.
The four years worth of goodbyes that I said leaving campus will be nothing compared to the ones I will say on the day I leave home. I’ll pack up the room I grew up in and solemnly walk my suitcases down the stairs that I used to sprint down in excitement when my dad got home from work. I’ll eat my last home-cooked meal, say goodbye to my dog, and pass the lines that mark my height on each birthday. I’ll walk out the door, nervous for my first day of school once again, except this time, I won’t return later in the day to tell my mom how it went. After move-in, my family will leave me alone in a place that won’t be home yet. Then, slowly, I’ll find the people who will make saying goodbye at college graduation just as hard as high school.
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