The end of the year means Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Freedom From Religion Foundation protests, Bowl Games, seeing family you love, tolerating family you don’t, gifts, department store return lines jammed with angry people, travel, traffic, headaches and Jenny Craig’s hotline exploding with cries of “I’m too fat!” For me, it’s a happy-sad gathering that involves that involves me wearing the most expensive thing I own that wasn’t autographed by a football player.
Mid-year graduation is always a strange phenomenon for me. I usually end up gowning up in apparel that makes me look like a cross between Henry VIII and a Detroit pimp and sitting through three hours of names being announced in the school gym. I usually end up freezing to death while trying to get to the gym and then sweating to death when we’re all crammed in there. The speakers have eventually learned that they need to keep it short, but on occasion, you run into someone for whom this is like their moment on Star Search: They’re not giving up that mic without someone coming after them with a whip and a chair.
The rule at my previous college was that you had to attend at least one of these things each year. You signed up and if you blew it off, you were up a creek without a paddle. I usually picked the winter one, as it was shorter, easier and had fewer faculty, which meant more space in the faculty seating area. Of course, by the time summer rolled around, faculty had been blowing off stuff and missing in action, so another call went out to those of us easily swayed by Catholic guilt to pony up again.
I went for a number of reasons: I’m a fan of graduation ceremonies for the kids, parents like to meet you and I do look awesome in the regalia, despite the fact I hate dressing up. Doctoral regalia gives you this odd feeling that you know what you’re doing, even if you’re wearing jeans underneath this badge of importance.
I have to laugh about all of that. As an undergrad, I was a horrible student, due primarily to the greater interest I showed in the student newspaper than I showed in my classes. I made the dean’s list one term, got involved in the paper and watched my grades crash like the Hindenburg. In my master’s program, grades didn’t matter, but I did marginally better. In my doctoral program, grades didn’t matter worth a shit, so I never paid attention to what I got, so long as I passed. One day, I got a letter from the school telling me I was being inducted into the journalism honors society on the strength of a perfect GPA. I almost threw it out thinking it was a joke. Turns out, I got a neat medal and the right to wear a purple hat. I honestly think it’s the academe’s way of mocking me.
In this gig, I went a couple times, only to find that most of the kids I knew didn’t attend and faculty presence wasn’t required, so turnout was low. I then made a deal with myself and the kids: I’m not going unless someone specifically invites me. That way, I know I’m going for a reason.
Some of the kids from the newsroom thought I was joking until the year I didn’t show up for a spring graduation and all these parents were there looking to meet the guy who corrupted their children. I got an irate text message from my editor asking where the hell I was. Hey, you knew the rules. Not my fault. I’m waxing my car.
This winter, I got three invites, including one from my managing editor who told me, “If you don’t come, I’ll cry.” This from a woman who bounces people out of her bowling alley/bar every night and walks around the newsroom toting a baseball bat.
Thus, I ponied up, sweated my ass off and sat through a graduation ceremony. It was actually one of the better ones. I got to meet the family of the kids, a couple of whom looked at me and said, “Oh, I thought you were a student.” With a hat that hides male-pattern baldness, that’s somewhat workable on a campus filled with non-traditional students, I guess.
Afterward, I make good on the traditional promise I make to the kids their sophomore year when they wonder why I’m digitally dissing them: I’ll be your Facebook friend once you graduate. When you become an alumnus, it’s a great way for us to keep in touch. Before that, it’s creepy as shit and given the fact that everyone from columnists and football coaches to teachers and priests seem to be having trouble separating themselves from kids without using a crowbar, it’s in my best interest to not open any doors that might suggest impropriety. One kid one year literally walked across the stage, got her diploma cover and whipped out her smartphone. I got the “friend request” about six seconds later.
Many of these kids are returning students or one of the first in their family to get a degree. Moms and dads come in their best jeans and clip-on ties. Some of them come with husbands, wives and their own kids wearing muddy boots and cowboy hats. Their coats are from the local Harley dealership, the city factory or the Carhart section of Farm and Fleet. They feel horribly awkward standing around looking at all these people they’ve been trained to view as academic elites while their kids pose for photos with these overpaid government workers. I always do my best to try to break through that, once doing so by spending about a half hour talking to a woman’s husband about diesel engines and the benefit of having a good pickle fork when confronting an uncooperative tie-rod.
In looking back at the pictures the kids post from graduation, it becomes clear this means a lot more than many of them are willing to let on. They treat it like an imposition while waiting for their turn on the stage, but when they smile for those photos, you can tell that they know what they’ve earned.
And when I see my own smile there, it reminds me that this is why I do what I do.