We recently celebrated two graduations within 5 weeks, here at the hen house. In early May, Lulu graduated cum laude from Northeastern University with a Bachelor of Science in Economics. Honors. In economics. None of her parents was even remotely successful in economics in college (unless you count passing the class with a studly C-. Hey, it smelled like success to me at the time.) But I digress.
The ceremony was held in TD Garden (home to the Celtics and the Bruins), which seats more than 16,000 people. The place was packed. As you can see from Sheerah’s photo to the right, our seats were up in the rafters. If there were any new championship banners to be hung this spring, we could have taken care of that during the three-hour ceremony. Alas, 2010 will not be a banner year for either team, so we just focused on the commencement.
The procession into the arena took more than an hour, with more than 3000 graduates filing into the arena in four different queues. In order to get a glimpse of Lulu as she was walking in, we were sending text messages back and forth to figure out where she was. At one point, when about half the graduates had been seated, I sent Lulu a text message asking where she was. She replied something to the effect of “I have no idea. We’re not even in line yet. I think we’re in a storage room. It’s complete chaos.”
As luck would have it, we were seated at the same end of the arena as Lulu, and the same end from which the graduates filed in and out. With the help of modern technology – and the enormous orange handbag Lulu had slung over her shoulder – we were able to spot her coming into the arena. We waved and made fools of ourselves, and she was able to see us and wave back.
After listening to speech after speech, the awarding of honorary degrees, and all the other stuff that goes into a university commencement, it was time for the “awarding of diplomas.” I put that in quotes, because what they actually received were simply diploma covers. It’s already complicated enough to pull off such an event as this; trying to insist on seating the students in alphabetical order (as we did at my college graduation) would add a pointless degree of difficulty.
The diploma covers were distributed from four different stations at the foot of the stage. Cameras were set up at each station to broadcast the distribution on the jumbotron hanging above the arena. Whoever was choreographing the jumbotron feed was alternating from one camera to the next throughout this part of the ceremony. So there was no way to know whether the camera that was broadcasting on the jumbotron would be the same camera that was focused on Lulu’s line when she went through it. We sat, squinted, and waited. Drawing on the same lode of luck that we’d had all day, the jumbotron feed was coming from Lulu’s line just as she did the grab, handshake and go maneuver. So from our nosebleed seats, we managed to get a photo of her receiving her diploma cover. Her eyes were closed, but it’s not like we could get a do over.
By contrast, GForce graduated from her Quaker middle school last week, in a class that had 24 eighth graders. Before I start describing the differences between celebrating 3000 graduates vs. celebrating 24, I need to make a confession.
I’ve already been through two middle school graduations with Sheerah and Lulu, and up until last Friday I had always felt that celebrating “graduations” prior to high school is yet another example of over-celebrating the millennial generation. Back in my day (I do love saying this now that I’ve crossed the mid-century mark), up until the last year of high school, the last day of school was just that. There was nothing special about it at all, other than that it meant we had three months off before school started back up again. Back in my day, we only got trophies when we won something really big. By contrast, many in the millennial generation have been given trophies for merely participating in things like “Little Kickers” soccer clinics. This is a generation of kids who, in many cases, wear a cap and gown at a graduation ceremony that celebrates their completion of pre-school. So I was prepared to be, at worst, unimpressed by GForce’s middle school graduation. If not that, then I was prepared to simply endure it.
I should have known that the Quakers would have their own beautiful spin on a graduation ceremony. We arrived at the school gymnasium to the sight of chairs arranged in concentric circles. The center circle comprised 24 chairs for the graduates, with each student’s name on the back of a chair. In the middle of all these circles was a small table, with a solitary vase on it filled with water.
The families assembled into the outer rings of chairs to the sound of solo jazz piano music played by the jazz band teacher. At the top of the hour, the students filed into the gym one at a time, each carrying a big Gerbera Daisy. The kids were arranged in order by height, starting with the shortest and progressing through to the tallest.
When all the kids were seated, the head of school stood up and explained that the next hour would be a “Meeting for Worship,” as they call it in the Quaker tradition. He said that as soon as he sat down, a minimum of 5 minutes of silence would be observed. After that, if people felt moved to improve on the silence, they could stand and speak. Anyone moved to speak should leave silence between themselves and the previous speaker. At any point during the Meeting for Worship, each student could get up and place her or his flower in the vase. When all the students’ flowers were in the vase, the head of school would reach over and take the hand of the person next to him, who would to the same to the person sitting next to her, and so on. When we were all holding hands with the people next to us, Meeting for Worship would end and the presentation of the graduation certificates would begin.
The opening silence lasted for more than 20 minutes. It was exquisitely beautiful, and a number of us began weeping — some quietly, some not so quietly. Many parents, friends, and siblings of graduates eventually stood up to speak following that opening expanse of stillness. Many didn’t. Some of the students spoke before putting their flowers in the vase. Some simply stood up, deposited their flowers in the vase and sat back down. The final student, the third tallest, held onto his flower for an amazingly long time before eventually unfolding his lanky body from the chair and silently sliding his flower in with the others. Meeting for Worship lasted more than two hours.
The head of school stood up again and explained that each student’s name would be called, in alphabetical order by first name. The student would then stand in place, while a staff or faculty member read a quotation that they had picked out just for that student. When the reading of the quotation was over, the student would then walk forward to receive congratulations and the certificate of graduation from the head of school and the principal.
When GForce’s name was called, she stood up and her soccer coach read this quotation, which she picked because of how persistent GForce’s smile is:
I hope your dreams take you to the corners of your smiles, to the highest of your hopes, to the windows of your opportunities, and to the most special places your heart has ever known. – Anonymous
When all the students had received their certificates, they filed out of the room and we met for a reception in a different room.
So now Lulu is launched into the whole wide world of adulthood, needing to find her way through the high unemployment rates of a persistent economic recession and the exorbitant rental prices of area apartments. And GForce is launched into the whole wide world of our local public high school, needing to find her way through a curriculum that is completely geared toward passing standardized tests, in a climate of increasingly shrinking funding for “extras” such as guidance counseling, arts, drama, and music. As Dickens said, it is the best of times and it is the worst of times. Or, as Jakob Dylan puts it, there’s nothing but the whole wide world to gain.
Congratulations, girls! You rock my whole wide world.
A tip of the hat to Bill Warner, who took the beautiful photos of GForce’s graduation.