I imagine just about all of us either knows someone or is someone who was not able to participate the way that had planned in one of life’s great “rites of spring” – graduation. (At my high school, we called it “commencement”, but it’s still the same ceremony.) Seniors virtually everywhere have been forced to accept that not only this grand event, but their entire spring semester has been disrupted, replaced with virtual classes and graduations (or possibly postponed until later in the year in the case of some in-person graduation ceremonies.)
Speaking for myself, my graduation events – from The Mercersburg Academy for high school, from The College of William and Mary for undergrad, and from The University of Maryland for grad school (or “gradual school” as I called it) – were perfectly fine affairs, with proud parents and family present, and diplomas received from the hands of Heads or Deans. But for me, it was the entire senior years (in the cases of high school and college) that hold the fondest memories, and especially the senior springs. So while I imagine there are many graduating seniors who are truly missing their traditional graduation ceremonies on campus, I also imagine they are equally sad about missing their senior springs.
Today I had the opportunity to visit one of my very favorite places – the campus of a boarding school in rural Virginia. I have had the honor of helping this school plan, design and construct several projects over the last decade, and we are again working with them to take on a very ambitious multi-year phased expansion and modernization to all of their academic, art and science facilities. Even though the drive takes at least two hours and is filled with the full spectrum of driving conditions – from the chaos and cacophony of the DC Beltway to the achingly picturesque, harrowingly narrow, windy roads of the Virginia hunt country – I still thoroughly enjoy my trips to this gorgeous campus.
It’s little wonder that I find myself gravitating to places like this, as I spent most of my early life living on and attending schools that sit on stunning campuses. A quote from John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace”, set at the fictitious New England prep school called Devon, sums up for me what it is about these places that speaks to my heart and soul:
“Devon is sometimes considered the most beautiful school in New England, and even on this dismal afternoon its power was asserted. It is the beauty of small areas of order—a large yard, a group of trees, three similar dormitories, a circle of old houses—living together in contentious harmony.”
The phrase “living together in contentious harmony” is what strikes me the most about this passage, and his spot-on description of most campuses I have seen. I firmly believe in the power of place, and how it is made up of so many different elements, some operating in harmony, some not. In my opinion, the best places – including campuses – truly follow the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is also why I am so grateful to have found a profession I truly love – being not just an architect, but a SCHOOL architect.
So today, I happily found myself wandering around this campus, having arrived early for my meeting, thanks to the virus and its impact on the volume of traffic. Even the top-side of the Beltway was smooth sailing, something I have rarely encountered during the countless trips I have made on that serpentine stretch, regardless of the hour of day or night. On any other spring day when I had visited the school, the campus was alive with its usual varieties of activity. I would see students moving between buildings and classes, others gathering on benches or in the grass, and some out of athletic fields, practicing or playing.
But today, on this humid and partly sunny day in late May, on the eve of graduation, when the seniors were to receive their diplomas from the Head of School in a gorgeous garden, just as all the seniors before them had done for over a hundred years, today the campus was quiet. Eerily quiet. Like something out of some post-apocalyptic horror movie. Or maybe during a world-wide pandemic.
It was this pandemic that actually brought me to campus today. I was invited by the school leadership to help them evaluate their various facilities to determine how they might consider re-opening their campus to the students this fall. So armed with pad, pen and mask, I found myself strolling along the walks, passing through lush green lawns and quads, beneath beautiful mature trees, beside lovely buildings, including a few that I helped design.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve been on campus. Yet it never gets old. And today was particularly poignant, as I noticed how deafening the quiet was due to the complete absence of students – especially those seniors on the eve of their graduation. And I became very sad. For the seniors and their proud parents and family. But mainly for the students.
I was immediately whisked back to my own senior spring, remembering similar warm late May days, in the full throes of senior-itis, soaking in the sun as I hung out in the grass lawns and quads of my boarding school, while also soaking in the fleeting presence of my fellow classmates. I don’t know if I realized it then that I would probably never again see many of them. I doubt that as an almost-18-year-old, I was able to appreciate the gravity of this moment. Though I do recall having a good cry by myself the night after my own graduation party, sitting by myself in our living room, after everyone else had gone up to bed, listening to one of my many vinyl albums that was the music of my youth, and really feeling the full impact of this rite of passage for me.
Today was not the first time I have visited a campus when the students were gone. But today this quiet place felt particularly empty. Because the quiet, empty, lush green lawns and quads should have been full of joy and activity. Full of the class of 2020 doing their version of soaking in the sun and the presence of their classmates. Aside from some possible compromises in the education they received this spring on-line instead of on campus, these graduates should not be any less prepared than the many classes of seniors that have preceded them.
But graduation and senior spring are about so much more than grades and preparations for the next steps. They are about the magic of those warm days and evenings, spent on campus with friends, squeezing that last bit out of this critical period in their lives. And it made me sad to think that these seniors, along with millions of others, are being denied their special senior springs. I’m sure the emptiness I sensed on campus today – as I strolled through quiet quads – paled in comparison to the emptiness they are feeling in their hearts. I wish all those who are graduating this spring the very brightest of futures.