Ghosts of Graduations Past  April 25, 2017

Somehow the end of the semester crept up on me. I thought I had another week after this one but no, my own schedule, my syllabus, and IU’s official academic calendar do not lie (I checked them all.). Graduation is May 6th which means my class ends before that. Damn. I could have used the extra week. 

It’s not all that surprising I got it wrong. I’m weird about graduation. Jerry brought my robe home yesterday. It’ll be the first time I’ve worn one since 1973, despite three IU degrees since. 

Cap and gown-wise, I am firmly stuck in some earlier, barely remembered lifetime, in that adolescent moment when I was proudly graduating from high school and looked out to the audience to catch my parents’ eyes. The only trouble was, they were gone. Only my youngest sister remained where my family had sat on that sunny June afternoon. 

They left because they had things to do. They were throwing a party that night. Not for me, heck no. One of Dad’s colleagues had won a Pulitzer (big whoop) and many AP folks were catching the train out to the Island from the city. It was a hell of a party. But not for me.  (Hear that?  Self absorbed teen angst does not improve with age.)

I believe I got purposely and no doubt obnoxiously drunk. 

I felt like a ghost then and I have ghosted my graduations ever since. In a splendid display of cutting off my nose to spite my face, I did not walk when I got my BA, or my MA, or my Ph.D. Every ceremony I have been forced to attend since I’ve worn civvies. 

I haven’t actually had to think much about this. It doesn’t come up often. I used to love the schmaltzy, haunting, portential sounds of Pomp and Circumstances. It made me bawl and sniffle and ruin my mascara. For 44 years I’ve easily blocked it out. For 44 years I have stayed in a childish snit I wasn’t even aware I was in because honestly, even in my business, how often does graduation become an issue?

But this year it is. Jerry, who is serving a stint as departmental chair, wants as many of the faculty gowned for our departmental ceremony as he can get. Normally that request would leave me unmoved, but he knows where I live. And he looked into ordering an IU gown and he picked it up. 

Even high school me isn’t churlish enough to refuse to wear it. He brought it home yesterday. I started to pull it out of the package but the rush of emotion, a life’s worth of coming in second on my big days, caught my throat and I shoved it back in the bag. 

All these years I told myself and anyone who would listen that I thought graduation ceremonies were cheesy, that I didn’t care about establishment trophies like diplomas (I have no idea where mine even are. Probably mouse-eaten or mildewed. Definitely not framed, or even removed from their original packaging. Pity, seriously.)

And all these years the truth is I never walked in graduation because no one I loved ever wanted to come watch me and I never saw the point. The fact that it was my achievement and worthy of my own celebration somehow got drowned out in the echoes of childhood grief and self pity.

This year I’ll wear it. I can’t say I’ve reversed the habit of a lifetime. I still don’t want to do it. I hope I am a bigger and better person than I was in 1973 but I am not sure how much better. A stubborn resistance still fills my throat and makes my eyes sting. 

The adult knows better. The adult is my biggest booster and champion. Like most of us, I have learned to do for myself what I couldn’t count on others to do for me. But the child will always grieve a little. I loved my parents very much but boy, I think you should have to get a license before you have a kid. Or four. 

At least no one will play Pomp and Circumstance next Saturday. Pretty sure. Wearing waterproof mascara just in case. 

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