Graduation Day

Rituals are important, usually more important to the observers than the participants, but still very important parts of the stories that we tell. If there was a section of Story Chip devoted to the first time I had too much to drink, how many of the stories would be about a wedding celebration? It is probably a good thing that the first drunk occurs where there are so many family members available to help those young teens in that experience. Part of becoming a full member of the family or culture is to experience those rituals with all of the emotions that go along with it. Late spring is the season for the ritual of completion known as graduation.

I have attended more than I care to count, usually as a member of the faculty, gathered to bid good luck to another group attaining the status of former student. I wish that I could say that attending so many made it any more palatable, but it just doesn't work that way. My first graduation was from middle school. That one was hard to understand. As students, we were not old enough to drop out so the ceremony was a recognition that we had not gotten into trouble with the truant officer. It was also my first opportunity to display some level of independence or childish bad judgment. The school disciplinarian made it very clear to all that failure to participate in the rehearsal would result in suspension from school for the half day of the graduation. Frankly, that sounded like an invitation that was too good to pass up, so several of us made sure that everyone knew we were skipping out on the rehearsal so that we would not have to be involved in the ceremony itself. Summer vacation started a half day early for me that spring.

I deeply regret that the same opportunity did not present itself for my high school graduation. I am sure that I attended although I cannot say that I remember anything at all about that day. It is likely that I felt that completing high school was a formality more than an accomplishment and really did not see what the fuss was about. I did not attend another graduation until my children began to complete their educational milestones. I never even considered attending the ceremonies for either my undergraduate degree or the one for my first graduate degree. For those, I knew that I did not need the ceremony to recognize that I was indeed more educated than when I began, so the ritual was entirely for the family members who would have felt obligated to suffer through the speeches, pomp and circumstance. The magnitude of participating in the ritual was forcefully brought home when my dissertation committee chair explained, no demanded, that I follow certain exact steps for my last graduation.

He explained to me that on the day that he took his finished and approved dissertation to be blessed and recorded, that he had stopped to pick up piece of stone that fallen off of the facade of the administration building. That piece of the stone occupied an honored place on his desk, usually as a paper weight, but always in plain view. He explained that his dissertation chair had demanded to see the piece of collapsing building as he had done the same thing on the day he completed his dissertation. My chair had been the first doctoral candidate of his chair, just as I was the first for mine. So, I had to find a piece of building and attend the ceremony so that my chair could have the privilege of placing his first doctoral cowl on the shoulders of a student. I know that somewhere there is a VHS tape of that event, even if I do not know where, but I can show you the rock in an instant. Rituals can start in funny ways.

I have carefully nurtured most of my bad attitudes about graduation exercises as they really seem to be an opportunity for the administrators and outsiders to congratulate themselves more than any focus on the students. My son's graduation from college illustrates this as well as any story that I could invent as allegory or metaphor. Of course, I was a proud parent of a young man punctuating his maturing with a degree from a prestigious university. I was also a graduate student, old enough to be the father or most of my fellow students interacting with a younger generation and in many ways seeing the philosophical differences of the sixties generation and their children. I attended that graduation as proud parent and as a fellow student.

Conservative, newspaper columnist, George Will, was the commencement speaker on that day shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He ventured into a talk about the nature of knowledge that focused on how “dangerous” postmodernist thought was to the future of the nation. I was delighted as he began that he was talking about an area that I agreed with him as finding instances that I agree with him are so very rare; the man even likes baseball. By the time he finished, I was impressed with his remarks but disappointed that he thought the nature of knowledge could be enhanced by suppressing a mode of thought, but as he pointed out in his speech, the very nature of being a conservative is to always assume that the worst will happen.

Mr. Will was followed to the podium by a representative of the graduating class who addressed his peers mentioning the variety of exciting understandings that had been a part of his experience at the College of William and Mary. His enthusiasm for synergistic approaches to problem solving could not have provided a greater contrast to Mr. Will's pessimistic conservatism. As the ceremony ended and we made our way to the break out sessions where the students received their diplomas, I was somewhat awe struck by the opportunity I had to be both a parent and a student on the day of Travis' graduation. I was standing with one foot on each side a generational boundary and knew that my perspective was completely to the side of the next generation.

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