Back in “the day” we didn’t have graduations from pre-school, elementary school or junior high school. The first official graduation ceremony was high school and for some of us that was followed by the completion of college. I’m not certain if the increased number of graduation ceremonies for kids today dilutes the importance or impact of the upper class ceremonies or not. That is a topic for another blog. I do know that, at least for me, waiting twelve years to participate in the ritual added to the poignancy of my accomplishment.
This past week I attended my niece’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Sitting in the arena that is usually home to the famous U of M “Terps” basketball team, I was struck by the enormity of the occasion. Thousands of people were there to witness over a thousand young women and men accept their diplomas. The crowd noise was deafening. At first the atmosphere felt more like a sporting event than a graduation with people doing THE WAVE, passing beach balls to each other, and cameras flashing like strobe lights all around the stands.
Suddenly, it all changed. The opening strains of the familiar melody, Pomp and Circumstance,
more effective than any coaches’ whistle, had quieted the entire gymnasium in an instant. Tissues immediately were seen dabbing at tears of joy and pride as the grads began to enter the room. One by one they appeared in their caps and gowns and found their seats on the polished hardwood floor of the center court. It soon became clear that the pomp and circumstance surrounding the ritual was not limited to the “sound track”; that melody recognizable to all of us from every Bugs Bunny cartoon and Donna Reed episode we had watched since childhood. The pomp was interwoven throughout every aspect of the ceremony. It was present in the grandeur of the procession, the solemnity of the handshake, the presenting of the scroll and of course the tradition and uniformity of the caps and gowns.
As I watched the proceedings and listened to the key note speakers eloquently congratulate the students, I scoured the sea of fabric and tassels beneath me looking for a sign of my niece. Then I remembered what makes graduations different from many other societal rituals and rites of passage. There is a duality inherent in a graduation ceremony. We come together to formalize the completion of absorbing and demonstrating a grasp of a required body of knowledge. The graduation symbolizes our abilities to accomplish a set of uniform standards. This thrusts us into a club that is made up entirely of members who have attained the same goal. And yet, at the same time we are celebrating uniformity we are also acknowledging each student’s individuality and unique accomplishments.
I caught a glimpse of Stephanie and my “Auntie heart” jumped. I grabbed my tissues as the tears started rolling down my face. There she was part of a community that was celebrating everything they had in common AND everything that made them unique. As each name was called people cheered and I welcomed the feeling of good fortune that had me there witnessing this moment. I felt peaceful and calm and suddenly realized that I also felt relief…not that my niece had passed through all of the academic hoops and challenges…I never doubted that. No, I was relieved that for a brief moment in the world the focus of a ceremony was on the absorption of a body of knowledge instead of on the bodies of the students.
True, there were lovely attempts made by some of the grads to assert their individuality via decorating their caps or wearing flashy footwear, making them easier to spot in the crowd for their relatives and friends. But more delicious was that the emphasis was on the student’s accomplishments and NOT their appearance. I felt a deep appreciation for tradition and ritual in that moment. It was as if all of the students were clad in an academic burqa. There was no temptation to scan, judge or criticize these soon to be college graduates. And as they flipped their tassels, in unison from right to left, people were actually commenting on WHAT the student did and not how fat or thin they looked in their regalia. It was a beautiful thing. Now if only we could take that perspective off the court and out into the world, then we could have a graduation ceremony for all of the cultural undergrads.