It was good to see you today, both to interact with you and, simply, to see you participate in the ceremony. You’d said before that Commencement was something, a side of the school we don’t normally see—the only time it feels like a “normal” school. You said this with a surprising fondness, considering that I’d never pegged you as a particularly normal person, but I’m glad you were there, and I’m glad I went.
I liked the ceremony and the dim grandeur of the auditorium, and the quirky details of tradition not all of which were explained. Like, ok, they explained what the mace was, and someone described the colors of the hoods, but why have hoods to begin with? And why does academic rigor call for tassels and strange hats and men in robes that hang past their knees? We don’t need to understand all things consciously. There are some who make the mistake of too much explication. I say, let the Mystery go unexplained, sign and signal of deeper Mysteries to be artistically explored and scientifically plumbed. Let the procession of men and women go by in black, preceded by the Mace held aloft, the President of the campus coincidentally robed in red like some academic bishop, everyone else in black with colored ribbons and trim, variously grand, scholarly, or foppish, let speeches be made and obscure higher-ups be thanked, and let us be created masters or doctors in turn by the power vested in incantation. And let the men and women in black process away again to the chanting oompa oompa of horns.
You were one of the grand ones. Academic regalia suits you. My mother once said once of a certain person that he looked as though he had on an “invisible opera cape.” I don’t remember who she was talking about, and I don’t have a clear idea of what an opera cape looks like, but in an analogous way, I’ve always thought you seemed to be wearing an invisible black robe. To see you really dressed that way looked so right.
I’m not sure what, if anything, this actually means about you. I don’t think pomp and circumstance itself is particularly your thing—and you actually looked kind of bored during the ceremony. Maybe it’s that something about the look of medieval formality suits you; academic regalia must be the sartorial first cousin of wizards’ robes (after all, the first scientists were medieval alchemists), and you do have dried bats in your office. Or at least, you used to.
I sat around in my own robes noticing these things in part because I was not sure what else to do. I sat through a ceremony meant to confer upon me the degree of Master of Science, but I have not finished my thesis yet…and neither have a lot of other people who sat beside beside me. So what did the ceremony do? What did it do to me? I feel as though the degree today conferred is floating above my head in a small, golden cloud, there to follow me around until I finally finish my thesis and the cloud settles upon me at last. Then, truly I will be robed in accomplishment.
I should have walked last year. I could have, and I did not, because I wanted to wait till I was really finished—but if I waited now till next year, hardly anyone would be left who knows who I am. So now I’ve given up walking with my own cohort for nothing—except I was quite proud to walk with the cohort that commenced today. But I was quite torn last year—I could have gone, and did not, and the whole time my cohort was graduating I walked the streets of town with a song stuck in my head;
Once upon a time there was a tavern,
where we used to raise a glass or two.
Remember how we’d laugh away the hours
And dream of all the great things we would do?
It was one of the songs traditionally sung at my grade-school’s graduation. The song is all about nostalgia, how the good times are all in the past and the best part of life is being young and foolish…which is a pretty sick thing to play at an eighth-grade graduation, if you think about it. At the time I didn’t think about it, except I knew I liked the song for its fun rhythm and fond associations. And then for years I didn’t think about it at all, until last year it just popped into my head, as clearly and instantly as if I’d had a radio in my brain.
From the door there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name.
Oh, my friends, we’re older but no wiser,
For in our hearts our dreams are still the same.
I’m really glad I’m both older and wiser than I was when I was thirteen. I was pretty crazy and really depressed at that point in my life. And while I’m in pretty good spirits these days, I hope to get wiser than I am today. I don’t think that involves giving up dreams; it involves using those dreams to do something practical and marvelous. But I guess that while my friends processed, I joined them in my head with the old graduation song of my childhood.
Why didn’t I get the actual graduation march stuck in my head? We played that at 8th grade graduation, too, after all. Maybe because I didn’t like the song as much. It reminded me less of graduation in general and more of my 8th grade graduation particularly, which I did not want to go through. I’d been at the same school for seven years, and it was part of my world. Intellectually, I understood what was happening, of course, but emotionally, it felt like I was being arbitrarily evicted. After all, I had never gone to school in order to achieve anything, I just went because I was a kid, and kids went to school. For many years, the graduation march was unbearably sad to me—it’s such a proud, grandly triumphant song, and it so denied the reality of my experience that day.
College graduation went rather better. As an adult, I can and do pursue my education for an actual reason, and I can be happy and proud when I reach my goal. I was proud of my school, and at the same time happy to leave it, happy to move on with my life. I heard the song that time more like it was meant. I kind of like it, now. But Pomp and Circumstance wasn’t the song that was stuck in my head all day today.
No, I had the theme for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Wouldn’t that make a great graduation march? I mean, it’s even done with a horn ensemble, same as the march they actually played—it’s got a faster beat, though. As my husband suggested, if we processed in that way, we’d have to do Silly Walks. While we were waiting in the cafeteria, lined up waiting for the procession to start, I did started dancing. Did you know that academic robes and bare feet are just the thing to dance in? The tassel and the big ol’ sleeves go flip-flop, and bare feet slap on the floor, and I just was having a great old time. At first I sang “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” but then I changed it to “it’s the end of the line as we know it,” since our group was indeed at the back, not counting the PhD people. The man standing next to me in the procession hid his face with his program, muttering that he doesn’t know me. But he smiled. And then I danced to Monty Python for a while, not that I sung it, as I can’t usually sing things without words to keep me organized, but it was in my head clear as anything.
Afterwards, when I thanked you, you said that this day changes nothing, that we are, first and foremost, friends. That is true. But never again am I likely to see you dressed like a wizard. And never again am I likely to find my education directed by such a constellation of excellent people.
And now for something completely different!