Friday, March 24, 2017

Into the Fire: The Afterlife of School Papers

At the end of each academic year, I find myself asking the same question: what to do with everything I’ve written this semester?  

An essay might take as much time and effort as an art project, but at least an art project leaves you with something tangible; you can put it on a shelf and gawk at the terrible craftsmanship for as many years as you like. (Shout-out to my mom, whose paternal obligations have kept her surrounded by my terrible pottery for over twenty years.)  But what about our essays? You can’t display those without looking arrogant or like a lunatic. So, what’s the point of keeping them around? 

It’s a complicated question, and one I’ve answered differently as I’ve matured.  

In high school, my friends and I ritually burned our academic papers in a cooler we dug out of the dumpster, a performance we repeated every year to mark the end of school and the start of summer. Perhaps motivated by a complete misunderstanding of Fahrenheit 451, a book we all slogged through and wrote about our freshman year, we found catharsis in watching a year’s worth of our work burn away.  

I’m a bit different now. I collect all my papers and the articles that informed them in binders, which I then place in a Rubbermaid bin in my closet. If I run out of binders, I go through and three-hole-punch everything before tying it all together with looped yarn. Beyond that, I have copies and back-up copies stored on flash drives, the electronic equivalent of a closeted Rubbermaid bin. Now, I literally carry around every essay I’ve written as a graduate student in a flash drive that hangs off my keyring. 

Something has definitely changed since high school. 

Technology has made things easier to store and have fewer friends who are prepared to spark butane at a moment’s noticeBut I think the real reason for this change is that I find value in what I write, in fact, I am actually proud of some of the stuff I've produced.  

I’m now almost at the end of my graduate career and will again be questioning the purpose of lugging around all my old papers. I don’t know what I will do with them yet, but I do remember feeling a tinge of regret during the last paper burning in high school. 

By then, news of our ceremonial burning had spread, increasing the size of our group from three people to ten. It could have been the increased amount of paper fuel or an excessive amount of lighter fluid, but when we lit the stack on fire that final time the cooler caught fire as well. We had to chuck the whole thing into a retention pond to keep the fire from spreading. Afterwards, when we were pulling what we could out of the water, I discovered a page from a paper that I had actually been proud of. The rest of the paper had probably burned away or soaked through to the point of dissolving, but for a moment I wanted it all back. 

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