From mid-May well into June, my corner of the world is celebrating one graduation after another. With four colleges, a state university, two community colleges and more high schools and alternative schools than I can count within a 25-mile circle around my town, the hills are alive with the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance.” It’s the season when graduating seniors wear funny hats and walk across a stage or field or gym floor after what seems like an interminable wait. It’s a time when parents and grandparents and whole extended families are happy to do the interminable waiting. Once their person makes the trek across the room, shakes a hand, and flips a tassel, they cheer and cry and sigh with relief and pride. I go to the university’s ceremony every year. I love every interminable minute of it.
To me, it is sad when a student passes up participating. There are always a few who tell me that they would rather sleep in; that it’s all pointless; that they simply don’t care about the ceremony or can’t be bothered doing the list of chores that are required to participate. To them, getting measured for the gown, picking up the cap, getting to rehearsal, and especially sitting in a ceremony not listening to the speeches is boring, stupid, or a waste of time.
I tell them they just don’t get it. It’s not about the hat. It’s not even about the speeches where important people say pretty much the same important things year after year. It’s about giving yourself and your family a way to signal that you are, in fact, moving from one chapter of life to another.
There’s something in the human mind and heart that loves ceremony. It’s not all that remarkable that most American graduations share many of the same traditions: caps and gowns; the presentation of a diploma; the graduation speech; the tossing of hats into the air. They are much the same because they are all making the same statement. The graduation ceremony is the closest thing most Americans have to a rite of passage into adulthood, a statement that we are moving from youthful exploring to adult responsibilities. Days as a student are ending. Life as an adult citizen is beginning.
It may not be your favorite way to spend a day but the graduation ceremony is not something to miss. The day after feels different because it is different. You made the symbolic walk to the next chapter of your life in front of classmates, teachers, and, hopefully, some people who care especially about you. Those in the audience bore witness to your accomplishment and your new status. You did it! Yes, you are just as much a graduate if you never make the walk but those who pass it up often express regret later. Without the pomp, without the silly costume, the walk, and speeches, school just kind of merges into life. Getting the diploma in the mail sometime during the summer doesn’t quite do it as a statement of change.
Graduation day also is a gift for family and friends who have supported you financially or emotionally during school. Even if it doesn’t strike you as all that significant, it may be extremely important for those who love you. Your graduation may be fulfilling a longtime dream of parents and grandparents and relatives both living and dead. Your folks may have saved, taken out loans, and mortgaged the house to get you through. They may have let you live at home into your 20s, fed you, and given you the moral support they could. If they couldn’t help with money, they did what they could to encourage and support you in other ways. They listened to your triumphs over hard courses, your complaints about professors, and your worries about that class you avoided until the last possible semester. No family? Unless you are a hermit, there have still been friends, girlfriends or boyfriends, and teachers who were in your corner during your years at school. It’s little enough to let them see you walk across a stage as a statement of gratitude and love.
This year, I will sit in the audience and watch with pride and pleasure as one of my kids makes the ceremonial walk for a masters degree. As much as she dislikes being the center of attention, she is giving herself and us the gift of that special moment when she moves the tassel from right to left. Her father and I will both tear up and beam. Her hard work and dedication to a field she loves deserve flowers and a celebration!
I also look forward to sharing a graduation day with the students I’ve been privileged to know and mentor for the last few years. Shaking their hands and meeting their families and friends is my way of saying to them, “Well done. Welcome to what comes next.