I was born in the ’50s and I am in my 50s. There is something about the congruity of that seemingly insignificant factoid that appeals to me and I rarely use the word appealing when referring to my aging process. (Let’s just say menopause has not been a party.) I am also not one to indulge in sentimental “those were the good old days” nostalgia; but “back in the day” we didn’t have graduations from preschool, elementary school or middle school. The first official graduation ceremony was high school and for some of us it was followed by 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. In my experience, waiting twelve years to participate in the ritual added to the poignancy of my accomplishment yet as a mom the tears I cried when I watched my three-year-old son “graduate” from Bernice and Joe’s Playschool didn’t seem to diminish my experience watching him play violin at his middle school graduation ceremony. Perhaps the inherent meaning found in rituals does not decrease with repetition especially if the participants find meaning in the occasion.
I recently 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 aware of the enormity of the occasion. Thousands of people were there to witness the large student body of 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 coach’s whistle, quieted the entire gymnasium in an instant. Tissues appeared like clouds, dabbing at tears of joy and pride as the grads began to enter the room. One by one they marched, sporting identical caps and gowns. Looking like a happy scrum of penguins, they 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 that melody recognizable from Bugs Bunny cartoons. 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.
I watched the proceedings and listened to the key note speakers eloquently congratulate the students. As I scoured the sea of fabric and tassels beneath me looking for a sign of my niece, I felt the power that graduation ceremonies have as we come together to acknowledge a student’s completion of a required body of knowledge; a curriculum comprised of uniform standards. This rite of passage thrusts them 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, 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 this appearance obsessed world the focus was on the absorption of a body of knowledge instead of on the body of the student.
True, there were lovely attempts made by some of the grads to assert their individuality via decorating their caps or wearing flashy footwear, making it easier for their relatives and friends to spot them in the crowd. But more delicious was that the emphasis was on the student’s accomplishments and NOT on the size of their hips or their bellies. I felt a deep appreciation for tradition in that moment. It was as if all of the students were clad in academic burqas. There was no temptation to scan, judge or criticize these soon-to-be college graduates and I overheard people commenting on WHAT the student did and not how fat or thin they looked in their regalia. I knew that in a few moments they would cast off their gowns and posing for pictures would commence. The focus of the cameras and the grads would shift and inquiries of a less academic nature would be posed:
“Do I look okay? Do I look fat? OMG, I hate my body!”
But in this moment the new grads rose from their seats and they seemed confident, un-self-conscious, and strong. I felt intoxicated by this small window of societal sanity and I envisioned them having the strength to embody those qualities once the burqas came off. I grinned as they flipped their tassels in unison from right to left, (was it my imagination or did they all look a tad wiser?) and clapped until my hands burned as they threw their caps into the air.
I blinked back the tears and thought, “Just like back in the day.”