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Every spring college teachers contemplate the passing of another senior class into history. Graduation is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, maybe not even ourselves. But our tears come only from one eye, since even though we'll never see some of these students again, the fact is that a good many of them really aren't going anywhere. I've had 5,500 students in my classes at UMass, and there are days when I'm sure that half of them still live within ten miles of campus.
My father had a theory that Brooklyn was settled by Manhattanites who were forced by an elaborate system of one-way streets and "No U-Turn signs" into that outer borough, where they got too lost ever to find their way back. I have a theory that the Pioneer Valley was settled by people who came to UMass to study, and, for one reason or another, never left.
When I run into former students, they are often sheepish about still being here and usually feel compelled to explain - to me, who came here for "a couple of years" fifty-two semesters ago. Then they assure me that they are just about to leave for New York City, Los Angeles, or Tokyo.
Some of them blame the university itself. As anyone who's ever tried to graduate from UMass knows, we have a computerized system that automatically generates a new requirement the minute all the previous ones have been satisfied. The Honors Program gives our best students a few more baffling requirements that keep them around another term or two. As a last resort, we can demand immediate payment of exorbitant sums in library fines and parking tickets.
We have ways of holding even those who are supposedly done. My own wife, a UMass alumna still living in the Valley (though, for you interested attorneys, not one of my ex-students), received a letter placing her on academic probation one semester after she had purportedly graduated.
In all fairness, though, it's not always the university's fault. Sometimes, there are personal reasons, for instance, "I can't leave my wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend." Indeed, the Valley is so full of specialized commitments that there are many variants on the "I can't leave my" motif: 1) shrink, 2) writing workshop, 3) lab rats, 4) bartender, 5) softball team, 6) schnauzer, 7) chiropractor, 8) dojo, 9) bass player, etc.
To remain here, ex-students have to find work. Now, it is well known that the Valley has no jobs. This is a remarkable fact, considering that Northampton, Hadley and Amherst have close to a hundred restaurants; innumerable publications; the sprawling theme park of Yankee Candle; all kinds of schools and para-academic industries; agriculture; and two or three malls. Not to mention the university itself, which is always hiring. Who's keeping all this stuff going -robots? Admittedly, these are mostly "permanent temporary" jobs, but many a former student has worked one of these jobs long enough to end up running the place.
Some grads say they're still here because they can't think of anywhere else to go. This is another way of saying that students who get off campus and explore the area run the risk of falling under its spell. Where else can you buy premium French Roast and farm-fresh asparagus in one place, or go to see Maceo Parker and an ox-pull in one day? Where else walk out of K-Mart and run into a black bear?
UMass now inhabits a world created largely by its own graduates, as they once inhabited the world that it created. About this nobody should be sheepish, and nobody should have to apologize. It's a wonderful thing to see former students leading their lives into middle age, and to have a chance to know them as adults.
Besides, without them there'd be no one here.
David Lenson teaches comparative literature at UMass. Artist Mark Brown '78G lives and works in Easthampton.