Mere Words

I imagine that spring is the same on college campuses everywhere. One minute the trees are bare and the shoulders hunched. Then the leaves explode. Then the students are gone.

We who toil on in Gambier through the summer love having the village to ourselves for a stretch. But the sudden emptiness is disconcerting. There's a whiff of desolation about the place, an echo of loss. Where did everyone go? Where did the time go?

Here in the public affairs office, the departing seniors linger in the form of "hometowner" news releases, 383 of them this year, one for each of the 383 graduates. They follow a formula, giving name, parents' names, of what street, in which town, and saying that Erin or Robert or Melissa or Jonathan received the bachelor of arts degree at the one hundred seventy-third Commencement of Kenyon College on May 19, 2001, and that Kenyon was founded in 1824 and enrolls approximately fifteen hundred students from the fifty states and more than two dozen countries.

The formula, and its repetition, and the repetition of the numbers within it, blur the image of individuals into something more abstract, the sense of a timeless processionand the abstraction is deepened by the fact that the individuals themselves are now absent. These kids, who were ours for four years, whose exploits impressed and amused us, annoyed and sometimes appalled us, whom we sometimes interviewed and sometimes got to know, whose pictures we sometimes took, and whom we wrote about in profiles and feature stories and quick blurbs and, yes, other news releases, equally formulaic but carrying the impression of living presence rather than abstraction, because they were a living presence, they were here: these kids have vanished into the dry phrases of the final news release, which has gone off, mere words, to the Argus Leader and the Falls Church News-Press and the Montgomery Advertiser and the St. Cloud Times.

Their lives, recently so noisy amid that explosion of leaves, have been swallowed into the silent, stately, relentless motion that is time.

Of course, we'll hear from them again. But meanwhile the summer pushes them out of mind while we attend to the deadlines of projects for the year ahead. There are mailings to send to the incoming class, a flood of forms and information sheets. On campus, there are brochures to update and booklets to ready for the fall. The biggest of these, and it begins to loom by July, is the Faculty, Staff, and Student Directory--the phone book.

It's the most popular book at the College. Mundane but thoroughly thumbed, drab but monumental, uninspiring but consulted more often than Shakespeare or the Bible, it's everyone's essential. No one reads it but everyone needs it.

For the toilers in the public affairs office, it's a labor of logistics and a dependable source of aggravation. We're word people, and people people, but in all these words denoting all these people, there's not a single personality, or voice, or emotion, or scene. The whole challenge is to format bloodless information. Moreover, despite the help of many other offices and the convenience of databases, we spend hours tracking down bits of data to fill inexplicable gaps and reconcile maddening inconsistencies, as if the multitude of names, numbers, abbreviations, and tab-stops were so many potential little bombs threatening to explode into headaches as they parade across the page.

Worse, any satisfaction we might take in completing this vital reference work is undercut by our knowledge that it becomes inaccurate the moment it goes to the printer, because people quit and other people are hired. And that there are bound to be some mistakes, because someone misread something, or mistyped it, or overlooked it, or didn't catch it. And that, in return for our labors, the only response we'll ever hear is indignant howling from those whose names or numbers we have (in our uncaring ineptitude, of course) mangled.

Thus, it is as with any book one creates: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Only here, the parts are headaches, and the whole is a kind of numb, nameless frustration that embodies the utter absence of gratification.

And yet. And yet . . . .

And yet I have a certain fondness for the phone book. Although it's a lifeless listing, as abstract as the hometowners, its pages evoke, person by person, the whole population of the College. Here in the silence of Gambier's summer, I meet up with the familiar names of students whose names I've met with before. And the fact that, in most cases, I know them only by name doesn't take away from the comfortable sense of familiarity.

When I come upon the name of someone I actually do know, a little spark jumps, igniting memories, and I wonder what they're up to and how they're doing, and I look ahead to meeting them on Middle Path in the fall. (And, yes, I'll admit I proofread their name and address with special care.)

But the odd thing is that my fondness doesn't depend on actually knowing people. The recurrence of names in a predictable format is itself comforting, as is the knowledge that the new names, those of the Class of 2005, will recur in the coming years; that, at the very least, I'll meet them every summer in the phone book and then, in four years, in the Commencement program and in the hometowners.

A meager sort of connection? Perhaps. I suspect I'm not alone, though, in feeling something important and true in this sense of a timeless procession. The names flow in, flow out and back, flow on. Often, we know the people only by the words that name them. And, using those words, we mark their time here, standing on the bank as they flow, enjoying the view, depending on the procession to keep on going.

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