Every year, I tell myself that things will be different in May. During these golden weeks between the end of the school year and the start of summer internships, I will take care of all the things I have stored in the back of my head. From an excess of time, an idealized and optimized version of myself will emerge.
I spent the whole month of April planning for May. I needed to put some money in my 401K, start training for a half marathon, finally cut my bangs, get back into crocheting, etc. But when the finals ended and May arrived, I found myself overwhelmed with a special feeling. The stress of the semester never really subsided and the motivation turned into burnout. I sat on my porch with my roommates, laughing and drinking margaritas, internally freaking out about my endless to-do list. I would walk through the spring flowers, hand in hand with my boyfriend, silently overwhelmed by all the ways I could be productive or improve myself that day.
Year after year, I find myself in a post-semester panic. Rather than letting myself rest, I decide to really force myself – to read more books, to apply to more graduate programs, to work more hours. Given the post-semester burnout, these goals are often overambitious at best and completely unrealistic at worst. I never complete my to-do list; which means I didn’t allow myself to relax, but I didn’t accomplish anything either.
This year has been particularly bad. I have a four-week period between classes and my internship — four weeks that are completely mine. Along with the usual post-semester anxieties, I’m reminded that this summer before my senior year is probably the last “free summer” I’ll ever have, even if only part of it belongs to me. Instead of relaxing me for the first time in my life, this knowledge only made the end of the semester more painful and disorienting. As I find myself in this unhappy environment again, I wonder why the end of the school year is so unsatisfying. Why do I always sabotage my precious vacation weeks?
After the final exam and submission of the final essay, days spent hunched over in the library turn into lazy mornings and leisurely afternoons. All the anxiety and inertia of constant work comes to an abrupt end. Often it is disorienting to go from intense concentration for eight hours to long, empty days. I woke up at noon in a cold sweat, convinced that I had slept through my alarm and would never find a seat in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, only to realize that class was over. Then a kind of peculiar anxiety set in, the realization that my days were now mine.
I also struggled with unstructured time during the school year. My sophomore year, the “Sunday scares” shifted to what I dubbed the “Friday scares” – a sense of acute existential dread brought on by the reminder that I had virtually no obligations on the weekends and that I had to figure out how to fill the next 48 hours. But on weekends during the school year, I had at least one reason to feel anxious. It’s not easy balancing homework, chores, socializing, and all the other responsibilities that get pushed off to the weekends. The weekend, of course, has a predetermined end. I know Monday morning I will resume my regular running schedule between classes, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs. There’s something different about summer vacation. Logically, I know it will end in August, but right now I feel like it will drag on indefinitely into the future.
French philosopher Giles Deleuze noted that in our society “we are never done with anything”. On the contrary, Deleuze asserts that we move rather seamlessly from one institution to another. Education becomes an internship that becomes a job. These major life transitions are reduced to sharp and inevitable changes while losing all distinct form.
The school is overwhelming. Its long tentacles have a way of reaching into every corner of life, taking over our weekends and midterm vacations. On weekends, I was anxious because I had more control, but deadlines, homework, and extracurricular activities were always there to keep me wondering. I was never really finish the school week.
But while the class had a way of fueling everything else, the end of the school year couldn’t be more different. I watched the four weeks before the start of my internship spread out before me and felt uneasy, uneasy and unsettled.
After the last class on Friday, I know, to some extent, what is to come. But walking out of an exam hall, with nothing but an empty calendar and hot days in Ann Arbor ahead of me, I feel like I’m finishing something. In a society that prescribes a certain path (from high school to college, to internships, to the job market, to marriage, and beyond), there is no plan for unstructured time. We know what people are supposed to do after high school and college. We know there are a few times in life when rest and unstructured time are okay – retirement, sabbaticals, and vacations, for example. Apart from that, there is nothing. If everything you know seems like it’s going to take the next step, there’s no way to enjoy truly free time.
Across cultures, anthropologists observe rites of passage – rituals, ceremonies, and traditions that mark a transition from one social status to another. Graduation is the ultimate rite of passage in academia. Maybe it wasn’t entirely satisfying: my high school diploma was disappointing. Even though the pandemic has suspended graduation ceremonies, students still have physical markers like diplomas to give them a sense of closure. But it helped smooth out what could be a difficult transition and put my high school years comfortably in the past.
Completing a college year may not be widely recognized as a major societal transition, but it often looks like it. Not all transitions deserve the pomp and circumstance, but some guidance would be helpful.
There is no rite of passage and there is no predetermined next step. In the anthropological and Deleuzian sense, the end of the school year is like falling off a cliff. It is an end without a beginning.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how many perfect days I have left in Ann Arbor. How many more afternoons I will spend hammocking in the Diag, how many times I will eat No Thai on the floor of my apartment, or how many sunsets I will watch while swimming in the Huron River. I’m entering my final year of college – in all likelihood, those precious four weeks before my internship will contain an inordinate share of perfect days. How many more times will all my friends be in Ann Arbor and freed from schoolwork or other responsibilities? It’s cruel that I sabotage myself like that. I’m so overwhelmed with anxiety after the school year that I can’t afford to be in the moment.
Every semester it gets harder to push myself over the edge. The weeks I have for myself are becoming less and less productive. I know it’s not sustainable. Burnout is rampant on campus and on some level all I really want at the end of the school year is permission to rest. I desperately want to relax and be truly present in my own life, but I also know that I will never allow myself to do that until I can no longer physically empty myself from my work. Instead, I look for outside clues that I can turn off my alarm clock, have a lazy morning, spend the day with my friends. In our society obsessed with productivity and self-optimization, that permission almost never comes.
I try to be gentle with myself. I take long walks around Ann Arbor, toward the river, the farmer’s market, or nowhere. I remind myself that I can only push myself so hard or go on for so long. Yet that all-too-familiar anxiety keeps coming back and threatening to ruin my day. In a few days, I will start my internship, almost as exhausted as I was on the last day of the finals, but with nothing to show. There is no rest at the end of the school year.
Statement columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.