Last year I attended a double graduation and sat through four hours of national anthems, platitudinous advice, and the mispronunciation of names. The four hours were only interrupted by a brief foray into the blazing hot sun to take pictures of sweating graduates. I would rather have attended a double murder. This large public university held four separate graduation ceremonies in one day to process all the graduates. I attended the first two. Although I suppose such rituals are necessary to help people mark major life transitions, this is one passage I would have just as soon avoided.
Graduations are intensely emotional events. It’s like attending one of those old Moonie weddings with a thousand brides and grooms. Feelings of joy, relief, and anxiety intermingle while vague despondency charges the air. The faculty and staff share these feelings but mostly seem fatigued and can hardly wait for the ordeal to end.
As each graduate’s name is read for their ten seconds of immortality, their personal mini-fan club erupts in applause, yelling, or even stomping. I wonder about the students who get a real loud response. Do they have exceptionally large families? Are they very popular? Promiscuous? And I always feel sorry for those who don’t get any fuss made at all. What’s with them? Do they feel rejected or upset? At college graduations the people are so loosely connected, that even surrounded by thousands of revelers, each celebration is still private.
The first of the two graduations I attended was the liberal arts and sciences crowd. As a group they were serious and pretentious. Their featured commencement speaker was a fading local politico who tried some standup comedy and superficial sensitivity — like Jay Leno meets Rod McKuen. I felt embarrassed for him, since he obviously didn’t have the sense to feel embarrassed for himself.
Hundreds of nurses and social workers graduated in the next group. They were a much rowdier bunch. It was as if they actually knew and even liked each other. The crowd booed vigorously when a stick-in-the-mud security person removed the giant beach ball that had suddenly appeared and was batted around during the speeches. At one point of high emotion the nursing student section erupted into a massive free-for-all of silly string and confetti.
The guest speaker this time was a feckless social services bureaucrat who was also a big shot fund-raiser for the university. In his precise introduction the university president diplomatically neglected to mention that this man was also a notorious slumlord. This bozo didn’t bother to make any sense at all. I wasn’t even embarrassed for him, just annoyed.
Despite the inane speech I liked this ceremony better. The students showed more spirit and the faculty sported more dramatic threads. Some faculty wore silk gowns of bright gold and red and most of them wore those classy soft caps, instead of the usual mortarboards.
Several years ago at my graduate school commencement, my elderly advisor appraised the rakish university president, decked out in a color coordinated brown velvet cap, and said, “Damn, I got to get me one of those hats.” I hope he did. The chic president was fired about a month later for putting massage parlor bills on his state credit card. I can only imagine what he would have done if he didn’t have a Ph.D. The story was so popular in all the local newspapers that when I told a colleague that I had just shook the president’s hand at graduation, he said I should have worn a rubber glove.
No medieval rite of passage would be complete without some old fashion humiliation. Throughout my life I’ve been repeatedly embarrassed about my gender bending name– “Terry Lynn.” Like Johnny Cash’s mother, mine had an odd sense of the appropriate. My nominal distress culminated at graduation. I thought it was pretty impressive as the hung a hood on me, until the announcer said, “And now will Terry Lynn Stawar and her advisor come forward.” Even the largely indifferent crowd found this mistake highly amusing and it’s something I will remember always—Graduation Day.