Every year, I tell myself that things will be different in May. In those golden weeks between the end of the school year and the start of summer internships, I’ll take care of all the things I’ve been filing away in the back of my mind. Out of an excess of time, an idealized, optimized version of myself will emerge.
I spent all of April planning for May. I needed to put money in my 401K, start training for a half marathon, finally trim my bangs, get back into crocheting, etc. But when finals ended and May rolled around, I found myself overwhelmed by a peculiar feeling. The stress of the semester never really subsided and motivation turned to burnout. I would sit on my porch with my roommates, laughing and drinking margaritas, internally panicking about my never-ending to-do list. I’d walk through the spring blossoms, 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 resolve to really push myself — to read more books, apply to more graduate programs, work more hours. Given post-semester burnout, these goals are often at best overly ambitious and at worst completely unrealistic. I never actually complete my to-do list; meaning I haven’t allowed myself to relax, but I haven’t accomplished anything either.
This year has been particularly bad. I have a four-week stretch between classes and my internship — four weeks that are completely mine to fill. On top of the usual post-semester anxieties, I’m reminded that this summer before my senior year is likely the last “free summer” I’ll ever have, even if only a part of it belongs to me. Instead of getting me to relax for the first time in my life, this knowledge has only made the end of the semester more distressing and disorienting. As I find myself yet again in this unhappy medium, I’m left wondering why the end of the school year is so reliably unsatisfying. Why do I always sabotage my precious few weeks of vacation?
After the last exam and final term paper submission, days spent hunched over in the library turn into lazy mornings and leisurely afternoons. All the anxiety and inertia from constantly working come to a screeching halt. Often, it feels disorienting to go from intense concentration for eight hours to long, empty days. I’d wake up at noon in a cold sweat, convinced I’d slept through my alarm and would never find a seat in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, only to realize classes were over. Then, a peculiar kind of anxiety would set in, the realization that my days were now my own.
I struggled with unstructured time during the school year, too. My sophomore year, “Sunday scaries” subsided to what I dubbed the “Friday scaries” — 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 the weekends during the school year, at least I had a reason to feel anxious. It’s not easy balancing homework, housework, socializing and all the other responsibilities that get pushed to the weekend. The weekend, of course, has a predetermined end. I know on Monday morning I’ll go back to my regularly scheduled programming of running between classes, extracurriculars and part-time jobs. There’s something different about summer break. Logically, I know it will end in August, but at the moment, it feels like it will extend indefinitely into the future.
French philosopher Giles Deleuze noted that in our society “one is never finished with anything.” Rather, Deleuze claims that we instead move seamlessly from one institution to another. Education becomes an internship that becomes a job. These major life transitions are reduced to neat and inevitable changes while losing any distinct form.
School is intrusive. Its long tentacles have a way of reaching into all corners of life, taking over our weekends and mid-semester breaks. On the weekends, I was anxious because I had more control, but deadlines, assignments and extracurriculars were always there to make demands of me. I was never really finishing the school week.
But while class had a way of feeding into everything else, the end of the school year couldn’t be more different. I looked at the four weeks before the start of my internship spread out before me and felt apprehensive, uneasy and unsettled.
After Friday’s last class, I know, to an extent, what comes next. But walking out of an exam hall, with nothing but an empty calendar and warm Ann Arbor days ahead of me, it feels like I am actually finishing something. In a society that prescribes a certain path (from high school to college, to internships, to the workforce, to marriage and beyond), there is no blueprint for unstructured time. We know what people are supposed to do after high school and college. We know there are a few points in life where rest and unstructured time is acceptable — retirement, sabbaticals and vacations, for example. Outside of this, there’s nothing. If all you know is seemingly moving onto the next step, there is no way to enjoy time that is truly free.
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. It might not be entirely satisfying: my high school graduation felt anticlimactic. Even as the pandemic has put graduation ceremonies on hold, students still have physical markers like diplomas to give them some sense of closure. But, it helped smooth out what could be a difficult transition and comfortably put my high school years in the past.
Finishing a year of college may not be widely recognized as a major societal transition, but it often feels like one. Not every transition deserves full-on pomp-and-circumstance, but some direction would be useful.
There’s no rite of passage and there is no predetermined next step. In both the anthropological and Deleuzian sense, the end of the school year is like falling off a cliff. It’s an ending with no beginning.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how many perfect days in Ann Arbor I have left. How many more afternoons I’ll spend hammocking in the Diag, how many more times I’ll eat No Thai on the floor of my apartment or how many more sunsets I’ll witness while swimming in the Huron River. I’m entering my senior year of college — in all likelihood, these precious four weeks before my internship will contain an outsized share of would-be perfect days. How many more times will all my friends be in Ann Arbor and unencumbered by schoolwork or other responsibilities? It feels cruel that I sabotage myself like this. I’m so overwhelmed by post-school year anxiety that I can’t allow myself to be in the moment.
Every semester, it gets more difficult to push myself to the brink. The weeks I have to myself become less and less productive. I know it’s not sustainable. Burnout runs rampant on campus and on some level, all I really want when the school year ends is permission to rest. I so 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 physically can’t squeeze any more work out of myself. Instead, I look for outside cues that it’s okay to turn off my alarm clock, to have a lazy morning, to spend the day with my friends. In our society that’s obsessed with productivity and self-optimization, this permission almost never comes.
I try to be gentle with myself. I go on long walks around Ann Arbor, headed to the river, to the farmers market or to nowhere. I remind myself that I can only push myself so hard or go on for so long. Still, that all-too-familiar anxiety always returns and threatens to ruin my day. In a few days I’ll start my internship, almost as exhausted as I was on the last day of finals, but with nothing to show for it. There is no rest when the school year ends.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.