I love graduation. I’m not supposed to, but I do. I love the whole unending pageant, all three names of every single student and the listing of all their honors
I love graduation. I’m not supposed to, but I do. I love the whole unending pageant, all three names of every single student and the listing of all their honors and double- and triple-majors. I like that the very last of the campus rhododendrons might still be blooming in the onrushing Carolina heat. I welcome the heat itself, the promise of summer, the perfume of the just-cut quad on the breeze. I love even the anodyne speaker striding to the podium to urge the gathered masses to strive, to bound fearlessly into futures of their own brilliant making, to problem-solve and blue-sky-think and seize the moment, seize the day, seize whatever needs seizing —
I’ve built a career, of sorts, on hating meetings and committees and just about anything that’s not the inside of my classroom. Graduation, though, thoroughly defeats all of that. Maybe it’s that I love ceremony, that I’m the sort of person who often enough cries during the national anthem — or maybe it’s that there’s something very real underneath all the pomp and circumstance of these spring mornings. So much of what we in the university world do — we faculty, anyhow — is built on the shifting sands of explaining to one another how fancy we are. We can’t get enough of national conferences and points of order and strings of letters after our names. But graduation, at its core, is celebration. It’s not about us, no matter how bedecked we are in our regalia. Look, we’re here to tell the students. Look. You made it. No more tests, no more papers, no more needing to know when the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was.
I love the teary parents, the bleary students, the sun coming up through the humid haze. I love the piped-in music and the kids in their dresses and flip-flops, messages of triumph and thanks spelled out on mortarboards. Whether it’s in the football stadium at Chapel Hill, as my brother’s was so many years ago, or under hundred-year-old oak trees, as ours at Elon used to be until last year, when we moved into a much less miserable — but far more clinical — basketball complex, graduation is joyous, like a good wedding or an average birthday party. Please don’t clap until everyone’s name has been called, every marshal tells every crowd. You know who I love? The siblings with air horns.
I was still awake — as in, from the night before — when my parents called to tell me they were getting off the interstate the morning of my college graduation. The students I see each year at Elon look a little more put-together than that, though not all of them. What they all do look like is proud, and a little relieved, and maybe a little scared, too. It’s over, they’re thinking. What now?
What now is that everybody sings the alma mater, reading the words off a sweaty program and swaying to a tune nobody knows. I’m in tears each year — group singing gets me every time — and I’m thinking, it’s not true that it’s over. They will, in fact, need to know about 1787, and so much more. They don’t even know the things they don’t know yet. But if they did it right — graduates, if you did it right, you learned in these four years to say what you don’t know, and to be unafraid to do so. Now: Move your tassel to whichever side it is that’s the correct one, and go forth into the world. Ask good questions. Strive.