It is called pomp and circumstance, and it comes around every spring. I'm talking about commencement, but I'm not donning a cap and gown this year. Strangely enough, it doesn't feel right. When I attended what I knew would be my final one in May last year, I was glad. I was tired of all that rigamarole. I was not nostalgic at all.
Well, believe it or not, this year I sort of miss it. It is the first year in the past 21 years of my adult life that I have not been obliged to attend a college commencement. As an academic, I sat through hours and hours of those exercises - first to receive degrees of my own, then to watch my students receive theirs.Every time I've sat through a commencement I have done it grudgingly. Each time I've produced an impressive, intricate, disrespectful plan to reform it. Cut half the talks. Skip the procession. And PLEASE don't read all the names. Of course, I have never given the plan to anyone in authority.
I've been rained on frequently, but it didn't matter. A cap and gown, you see, represent the perfect rain gear. Except possibly for the doctoral hood, which is sort of heavy and awkward. I have seen every possible style for the academic regalia and every possible color combination.
I've heard hundreds of names mispronounced and watched hundreds of happy graduates parade across the stage to pick up their degrees. I've seen at least one graduate each year who either dresses outlandishly (jeans and gym shoes with the cap and gown) or does something outlandish when accepting the degree (carries a sign, jumps up and down, squeals with delight, ignores the president even though his hand is outstretched).
I've sat through numerous "charges to the graduates" given in pedestrian fashion with a straight face by sober college presidents. I've stood to sing numerous sappy alma mater closing songs.
I've heard every imaginable commencement speech. Some are given by successful businessmen and some by entertainers and anchor people. Some are given by politicians and some by journalists or scientists. Some who give commencement speeches have never received a college degree themselves. Some are deadly dull and some are so filled with jokes and anecdotes that they are embarrassing.
None of them are memorable.
Most people asked to give a commencement address have no idea how to go about it. They fail to realize that they should just be simple, straightforward and brief. What graduates care most about is getting that piece of paper, and as long as the speaker is not awkward and long, they just don't care. In truth, they won't even remember the speaker's name, let alone the message.
What they do remember is the cap and gown . . . the rain that was falling . . . the feeling they had when they went up to the stage to get the degree. They remember the feeling of satisfaction they had when they realized that all eyes of the audience were on them.
So in spite of the abundance of pomp and circumstance, every graduate needs the experience. No matter how tired many of us may be of seeing just one more son or daughter or sibling or student march across that stage, we owe it to them. It seems like one of those rare instances in life when pomp and circumstance are called for.
Some people may think the maturity of their years gives them the right to view the commencement cynically. They may even choose to skip it entirely. "Just mail me my degree, please." Sometime in the future they'll be sorry. Right about the time when it sinks in just how interesting college life really was.
Just what other time in life are you likely to be that immersed in the study of ideas? In what other setting are you going to force yourself to think - to look at all sides of an issue, and then weigh each one carefully? In what other setting do you form associations that last a lifetime?
All those memories come together forcefully at commencement - symbolic of a new beginning - with the help of pomp and circumstance.