I remember learning my multiplication tables as a kid. I didn’t like the odd numbers; 9 was particularly infuriating for me. I’ve never claimed to have been a smart child. With all the trouble multiplication gave me, there was one number that always struck me as special and important. I had a weird thing for the number 7. My reasoning for liking some seemingly arbitrary number was not so sensible as religious or spiritual symbolism. It also was not because 7 looks weirdly satisfying in a good serif font. Like most children, I wrongly thought I was special. These delusions of grandeur were because I found, through careful examination and cross referencing with my math book, that there was a clear number 7 on the palms of my hands.
I thought the number had chosen me, so I gave special attention to it when it came up in my multiplication tables. Multiples of one I had down on the first day, easy shit. I got cocky. Multiples of two was a breeze that reinforced my numerical confidence. 3 had a way of taking me down a peg because I would repeatedly forget 24 or 27 existed, always one or the other, never both. 4 got me mostly back on track, but it could still be troublesome. The kids would laugh at whoever got anything wrong in 5, so my social standing as budding class clown relied heavily on my performance there. 6 was trouble. 7, however, was where my prowess finally found a place to live. I loved demonstrating my mastery of all things 7. I always felt like my peers looked on, rapt, astonished at my confidence and intimidated by the talent that justified it. The point when I would most confidently brandish my arithmetic wit was the leap from 42 to 49. I had seen so many of my fellows fall to it like sticky-fingers stalks of wheat to the great scythe of mathematics (I was a dramatic kid). I didn’t know I would eventually grow very far out of my love for math, and I didn’t know that no child cared even a little bit about how good I was at memorizing a sequence of ten whole numbers, but I knew I really liked 49.
I don’t remember a lot of other details from whatever year of school that was. Google tells me kids usually learn multiplication in third grade so that’s probably when it happened. However, as I’ve gotten older, I still have this weird positive association with the number 49. I stopped caring about 7 once I realized that basically every human hand has a big 7 on it.
I’m still in school. It’s weird to think that, aside from a few months every year, I’ve been in school without a break for 18 years. The children born the year I started school can vote. They can order things online without permission. They can have sex. That’s weird!
And in 49 days I’m going to be done. I have 7 weeks of classes left, 7 weeks to finish everything. Having 49 days to finish something that began before I could spell two syllable words is remarkably intimidating. I wrote my name for the first time on a big orange paper leaf. I didn’t even know how to spell my middle name. I thought there was an E at the end, so I threw one in. I don’t know if I’ll do more school after I’m done with my Masters. I might one day aim for a PhD, and I might even get another Ma in something fun if I can do it while teaching. I don’t really know. For now, I do know that the last piece of work I write my name on is likely going to be my thesis. In 49 days.
I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing in, say, 50 days, let alone in a year. I have friends who have graduated and still work at the grocery stores they had for Summer jobs to pay rent while they waited on stipends and financial aid, jobs they had while they waited for their next round of students. I don’t know if I’ll be in a job like that soon, or if I’ll have a real job starting in August. I have some teaching work to take me through the summer, and I think I can get another to keep me fed and human. What I don’t know is what exactly will come after.
I’ve found that the most intimidating thing about leaving college, or just being young in general, is how unpredictable everything is. For 18 years, my life has been structured relentlessly. Sure, the content and complexity of that structure had varied a lot–the difference between an hour set for making snakes and shitty little cups out of clay and having 3 hours dedicated to trudging through critical theory texts–but it’s still structure, and it has still been how my life has gone without a considerable break for close to 20 years. So it makes sense that not knowing what next year will look like is a little scary.
I remember when I first finished my undergrad. I heard long speeches from teachers, parents, even the squat goblinoid president of my university made an appearance, and everyone said something to the effect of “you’re going to do great things.” If a student of mine wrote a paper talking about the life’s work of some fantastic member of society and a line in there was “they did great things,” I’d demand to know exactly what they did. Or, at the very least, I’d want an idea that could be expanded upon in later paragraphs. We’re apparently going to do great things, my peers and I, but what exactly those great things are nobody seems to know. The implication is that we’ll figure it out.
I know it would be wrong, and silly, and impossible for anyone to look at a graduating class of students and say “Thomas, you’re going to find a new effective treatment for Leukemia; Alex, you’re going to help pass legislation that will save the lives of thousands of children; Jessica, you’re going to be the teacher students actually remember. Premonitions about wonderful lives and careers won’t happen, and it shouldn’t. The journey to find where you belong shouldn’t come with the answers written upside down on the back. We have to find out what great things we’ll do on our own, or we’ll find out that we’re not going to do great things at all; I see for myself a career of adequacy with brief, intermittent moments of above-averageness. In 49 days, I get to start figuring my shit out, but I’m like the rest of every group that has ever done this because I really have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m scared, everyone who has done this was scared, the people who weren’t and had wonderful jobs lined up already were lucky outliers, and if anyone tells you “you’ll figure it out,” then you should attack that person with a trowel. Yeah, we’ll figure it out eventually, but that doesn’t make the actual figuring part any less difficult.