My daughter Sylvia’s red polyester gown and graduation announcements lay on a table at home, ready for City High’s commencement later this month.
We’ve been commencement-heavy in recent years, first with our son Nathaniel’s high school graduation in 2011, then the commencement ceremony for his instrument repair program in Minnesota last year and now Sylvia’s high school graduation. For several years now, with our kids’ friends such a central part of our lives, we’ve attended plenty of graduation parties, consumed our share of sheet cake and potluck dishes and slipped a lot of cards with checks for $25 into baskets toward the end of May.
This is certainly a very special era for my family, but I’m realizing how commencement has been a constant in my spring rituals every year for a long, long time. Since my own high school graduation (mmbmle-frmmble) years ago, I have been part of spring commencement more years than not.
I double-majored in music and English as an undergrad at Northern Illinois University where students could earn a cool 50 bucks for each ceremony we played as part of the ad hoc commencement band. I probably still have Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 under my fingers if I gave it a whirl on my clarinet.
Including high school, college and then grad school, I’ve gone through five of my own graduation ceremonies. Once I embarked on an academic career, I couldn’t escape the spring mortar boards and tassels. My first job after earning my doctorate was at a small liberal arts college, and all faculty members were required to participate in all commencements. That was fine, since, as it was a small school, a number of my students were graduating each year. But I did get tired of the college president’s annual entreaty at the end of her remarks to these so-very-special students—as she would put it so earnestly and with such heartfelt ardor—to “remember, please come home.” After two or three times, the predictable supplication grew a bit treacly.
Little did I know that not so many years later, I would be drafting university presidential commencement speeches and charges to the graduates each year as part of my job, which I continue to do to this day. Yes, there have been some repeated incantations in my commencement speech drafts, I must admit, but I try to keep the message fresh and relevant each time. No closing one door and opening another. No “you are the future,” which “is in your hands.” No education “that is just beginning.” Not even any “being true to yourself” or “following your passions.”
Of course, there is always some truth in cliché. The fact is, commencement is about new beginnings, and spring is obviously a perfect time to celebrate them, especially here in our Midwestern home when we emerge into warmth, beauty and new life from the cold sterility of winter. Despite the hoary chestnuts about new responsibilities to change the world, commencement does bring us renewal and hope, as does spring.
But it’s not the future-focused nature of commencement that I appreciate these days as much as its cyclical return. Just as vernal warm breezes, budding flowers and rising birdsongs place me in the newness of May each year, caps and gowns, stately marches, sheet cakes and even speeches about new hope center me in the rhythms of return rather than launching me into bright-eyed vistas of future possibility. At my age, I’ve graduated beyond “my whole life ahead of me.” For me, commencement has become a ground note rather than a downbeat.
Soon, we’ll head to Carver Hawkeye Arena and applaud our daughter along with so many of those kids—sorry, young adults—we’ve known since kindergarten, as they march across the stage, shake hands with City High Principal John Bacon and receive their diploma covers. We’ll hear the band play “Pomp and Circumstance” once again, listen to some repetitive words of future optimism and probably shed a tear or two. And we’ll eat a lot of sheet cake. But for me, commencement will come back around, one way or another, next spring. And I’m grateful for that predictable return of new life before us.
Thomas Dean says, “Wear sunscreen.”