I haven’t thought about Langston Hughes’ poem Dream Deferred since high school. At the time it didn’t make much sense, I was 14 after all. But a recent trip for Spring Break reminded me of it.
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
With all due respect to Langston Hughes, my deferred dreams age gracefully, and are more like old friends than exploding raisins. I muse this way whenever I go back to the town where I finished my PhD and where my in-laws still live.
I love visiting my in-laws, not only do they do free babysitting, but they just ooh and aah over my son and he basks in all the attention (plus they’re pretty cool and loving people). They live in sunny California, and we are SO happy about leaving the snow for a week. We return twice a year or so to visit. Most of the time is spent doing family things and letting my son spend time with his grandparents, but I always make sure to reconnect with a few of my graduate school friends who still live in Cow Town.
If you are lucky enough to get good graduate school friends from the process, cherish them. These are the people who have seen you at your worst and vice versa. They have struggled and fought with you (in both senses of the phrase) and yet remain your friend. Some of these friends move on to exciting jobs, or new fields, and you rarely see them. Some you see at conferences, and your circles are close enough you can get together. But when I go back, the friends who are still there have a different perspective. These are the friends who have decided to eschew the tenure-track line in favor of staying right where they are (for any number of reasons). And in many ways, I envy them. They remind me of what I imagined my life would be like all those years ago.
Most of the ones I see are the ones who are also parents. They have their PhD’s and good jobs (some are so-so jobs), just not tenure-track jobs. They raise their families here. They get to share with their kids the best things about this town. I love Cow Town. I loved this town so much, that my son is named after it (yes, really, and no his name is not cow- that’s a pseudonym for the town). The town has this amazing restaurant scene and farmer’s market, there are fairs and celebrations, talks and performances, beautiful walking trails and an arboretum, plus a great school system, and practically zero crime. Most of my husband’s and my courtship happened in that town, we lived there when we got married, bought a house, got a dog, graduated from school, and got my first “real” job. It’s not surprising that I thought of it as home. When we lived there I imagined what part of town we would live in when we had money. I imagined what school my children would attend. I imagined summers, and friendships, and years passing in this town. Then I got a tenure-track job and we moved 3000 miles away.
So, when I come back to Cow Town, I return to my memories, but I also return to a dream deferred. When I see my friends from graduate school, the ones who decided to turn-down the tenure-track job in favor of staying there and raising their families there, I am not sorry I made the choices I did. But, I am a little bit jealous.
Academics have to get used to moving anywhere- that’s what they told us in graduate school. I never questioned it, although I do now. Which is really more important, the job or the location? It’s strange to spend so many years in one town for graduate school (eight for me), and then move suddenly to a whole new place for three years or thirty. I’m lucky that my job is in a great location (despite the snow) and the people are awesome. Most academics don’t have it so good. But coming back and I feel the weight of nostalgia as overwhelming. I wish Cow Town was a person so I could give them a hug and write them letters. Maybe one day we’ll come back, or maybe we won’t. Maybe I’ll feel the same about my current town (let’s call her ivy city) in 10 years. For now, I’m going to call up some friends and plan some playdates.