Over the past several years, I’ve developed a small ritual during finals week. I go to the bookstore on Monday, the day the paper avalanche starts in earnest, and pick up my Josten’s packet — black robe, mortarboard with tassel, and Master’s hood — and take it back to my office, where I hang everything on the hooks behind my office door. When the baskets of portfolios and folders full of research papers and stuffed online dropboxes overwhelm me (which is many times a day), I look at the phantom professor in the corner and remember that the end is near. Summer begins in a week. No matter how bad it gets, it will all be worth it soon.
It is sort of a tradition among us professors to whine about having to attend commencement. Other than teaching a certain number of hours each quarter, it is one of the only duties specifically enumerated in our contract — ostensibly because no one would go if they didn’t have to. It’s a long evening. There are more than 800 names to read. We are tired.
Then there’s the fact that it is held in an unairconditioned basketball arena on the second weekend in June. In spite of the enormous fans whose roar fills the air even over the chattering of the crowd, it is sweltering — and we are dressed in black poly-blend and velvet. With hats. One of my colleagues has dubbed it “the sweat lodge.”
The black-robed near-graduates fill the tarp-covered arena floor, awaiting their diplomas. They flap at their already sweaty faces with cardboard paddles emblazoned with the college logo. The atmosphere is somewhere between that of a NASCAR race and a church service. The crowd is so big that even when Pomp and Circumstance begins to play, no one really quiets down. People cheer and wave like they would at a sporting event. Once in a while, an air horn blasts. It is not a solemn occasion, nor is it stuffy (other than the temperature).
Because I teach entry-level classes and prerequisites, it is unusual for me to see any recent students in the crowd. Although technically we offer only two-year degrees, few of the students who enroll in English 111 their first quarter finish in two years. Many can attend only part time. Many have their two-year plans interrupted — by babies, financial exigencies, illness, or any number of other inconvenient hurdles. Many of them transfer and will earn their degrees elsewhere. Many will simply disappear. Of course it is important for me to be there, but would any of my students know the difference if I weren’t? Do they even remember me by now?
The ceremony is roughly the same every year. The benediction and President’s welcome are followed by the conferring of Professors Emeriti. (No honorary two-year degrees granted, folks. Sorry.) Then the keynote speaker addresses the class. This year it was one of our Senators, who apparently thought he was somewhere else when he joked about the graduates’ parents being glad not to have to pay tuition anymore. I have no idea what the numbers are, but his little quip got not so much as a chuckle. Probably fewer than 10% of those assembled have someone else to pay their bills. Everyone looked at him as if he were daft. That he went on to quote Socrates, MLK, and Joseph Campbell in the space of the next three minutes (his theme: “follow your dreams.” Truly original and inspiring!) made me wonder if he’d just Googled “inspirational quotes” on his Blackberry ten minutes before the ceremony. And when he ended his speech by congratulating the class of 2001 (that is not a typo) I cringed.
While our keynoters are usually much better prepared and less — well — vapid, the best part of the evening is after the diplomas are handed out. The college President, a big man with a booming voice, does what I’ve come to regard as his commencement schtick.
“Stand if you are the first member of your family to graduate from college. Stand if you were ever told that you ‘weren’t college material.’ Stand if you started here more than five years ago. Remain standing if it’s been more than ten years. Twenty…” and he goes on until only one or two people are standing, and talks about goals and persistence and perseverance. The crowd goes wild. More airhorns.
I have a love/hate relationship with this scene. Last night, I was sitting next to my department chair, who is constantly being hounded by the administration about our passing rates. Why aren’t they higher? What can we do to improve retention rates? Those who worship the almighty “completion rate,” that number we are constantly trying to improve and that dogs our every decision, do not regard this sort of longevity kindly. At some point, we counted some of these very people among those we had failed to “retain.”
But they came back, and this night is for celebrating. This night is about the ones who have made it, however we count them. Some sail through; some struggle and repeat classes and suffer false starts. But the 842 graduates here, and the many hundreds more who opt not to sweat it out in the arena, did it. They did it.
And so did I. I made it through the piles for one more year. I submitted my grades. I convinced at least one guy that reading poetry wasn’t for sissies (although he made me promise not to tell anyone he said so) and another that he had something valuable to say. One student told me my class had changed her life. Another said I’d made her glad she wasn’t an English major.
And so it goes, as does my love/hate relationship with commencement. The odd mix of solemnity and rowdiness in the arena embodies all the good and the bad of my job, the successes and the failures of my students, the hopefulness and cynicism that are constantly at war in me.
When the ceremony is over, we faculty file out the back doors of the arena, peel off our regalia, and drop them into enormous cardboard bins to be returned to the rental company. Black robes, jewel-toned hoods and mortarboards lie in heaps as though their occupants have melted out of them, which is not too far from the truth. During the ceremony last night a thunderstorm passed over, as one does most nights this time of year. When I pushed open the doors and headed out to the parking lot, the heat of the day had dissipated, and a cool breeze washed over me. Summer had commenced.