Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
“SEWANEE, Tenn. — Thirty-nine years ago, my college commencement was held in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium on the hottest day Alabama could serve up. I tried to talk my family into letting me skip the ceremony, but my grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, put her foot down. “We’re going,” she said. So we went. All I remember of the whole day is trying not to perish in the hallucinogenic heat.
My grandmother began her career in a two-room country schoolhouse. She was still teaching 40 years later when Alabama public schools were finally integrated. What my grandmother knew, and I did not, is that it’s right to celebrate a hard-won achievement. It’s right to drink in the pride of family and friends. It’s always right to give yourself over to joy every single time joy is on offer.
It is also right in this liminal moment, this time of looking both before and beyond, to ponder what it all means. What did the years of study and camaraderie really add up to? What new challenges will you be obliged to face in the years to come?
I can’t tell you what it all meant, but I think I understand some of the difficulties that lie ahead.”