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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

When you're a grown-up, it's harder to figure out exactly what grade you're in

It’s nearing back-to-school time for most kids in the area. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, has been thinking about life as a student … after graduation.

School starts back for most kids around here soon. I don’t long to go back to school — I still sometimes have that dream about showing up to a final exam without having studied. And also I’m naked.

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But one thing I do miss about school is the grades. Not the A, B and C kind of grades, like on a test. I’m talking about moving up to a new grade every year — first grade to second to third and so on.

Every grade had something special about it. At the schools I went to, second grade meant we started using regular pencils instead of the big stubby kind. Fifth grade was when we dissected frogs. Eighth grade was the first school dance. Eleventh was when we took the SAT.

I’m sure kids are much more accelerated now — third grade is probably when they design their first rocket or whatever. But there’s still a rhythm to it, a natural progression where one year builds to another in clearly marked steps.

Adulthood isn’t like that.

Most of us don’t have lives with a predictable path. There are touchstones — getting a job, getting married, having children, buying a house — but not everybody does those, and there’s no set time to do any of them. Sometimes you can just float through life until you look up and the years have all mashed together.

Another way of putting it is, there’s no curriculum. And yet there are still so many assignments.

I saw a quote online the other day that said being a writer is like giving yourself homework every day for the rest of your life. But it’s not just writers, obviously. So many of us have work we take home with us, sometimes literally, sometimes in our heads as we try to sleep at night. If it were ninth grade again, and you were taking geometry, you could just finish the final exam and be done with it. Depending on what you believe, we might be graded in the afterlife. But if there’s a final exam in this one, I’m not aware of it.

Actually, I think there is a final exam, but it’s unofficial. It’s open book, self-graded, and it’s just one question: “What are you doing with the little bit of time you have on this earth?”

Answering that question is our real classroom, our lifelong independent study, with all its joyous volatility and terrifying freedom.

The beauty of it is this: Every day can be the first day of school.


Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.