Soaring with the occasion

ONE thing I learned at graduation time, besides the way to wear a mortarboard, was the extent of my four-year isolation. College had shot by, and as the class of 500 graduates gathered before commencement, I realized, to my embarrassment, how many classmates I had never seen -- let alone met before. As stalwart seniors are wont to do, I defended my ignorance and reasoned that to know everyone was impossible. Only the college registrar knew that Alice Willy and Jane Gerard were cousins and that Sally McKinzey had red hair. And who could have guessed that Maddy Thompson was an equestrian major? When you major in music as I did, you learn to live in a practice room. Sonata scores become your best friends and a metronome your worst critic. True, I had missed ``Meet-Your-Class-Officers-Day,'' some dorm parties here, some biology labs there, but had I really been deprived? Something inside me said no.

I did, for instance, come to know a ``psych'' major, Brenda Van Pelt. We'd shared a post office box for four years but had never met -- that is, until graduation day. We had probably clashed trays going through the cafeteria line, or sideswiped each other rushing to class, but she had remained my long-lost boxmate.

And now, here was Brenda Van Pelt next to me in the graduation order, offering me a bobby pin for my cap. I felt ashamed.

``I've heard your name around,'' she said, her face turned away as she jabbed a pin above her ear. ``Aren't you a theater major?''

To a musician, this was the worst of insults. But, since I hadn't known she won the Miller-Hicks Award for her thesis on pigeon behavior, I forgave her.

``Need some help with that?'' she said, noticing my struggle with the jammed zipper on my gown. I nodded, and as she bent over to examine the damage I watched the crowd of black-robed seniors inch out the door of the assembly hall toward the amphitheater. Being near the end of the alphabet, we two were slow to move, which meant more time to comb hair, adjust hoods, and skillfully conceal our helium balloons.

A voice from below me said, ``Could you hold your balloon to one side so I could see the zipper better? Thanks.'' It was hard to stand still with that sky-bound ball squeaking under my sleeve. Whose idea was this, anyway?

Never mind whose idea. This was the first time I'd seen the seniors together at one time. Convocation certainly never brought them all out -- not even the all-campus barbecues could do that. Plunging into the underworlds of biology, English, or physics, we seniors had little energy to surface.

I guess my freshman perceptions of seniors had been true after all. They were never in the dorm. Their doors were collages of scrawled messages because the hall phone always rang for them. They never showed up for dorm yearbook photos, floormeetings, or Jane Fonda workouts. Instead, they were doing grand things, like pulling ``all-nighters'' in the library, writing theses, skiing in Vermont, or road-tripping to Dartmouth College. To me, they were awesome.

Now I was one of them.

Soon the college president would reach out with her hand, smile, shake mine, and give me the diploma. How would I feel? Awesome? Maybe I'd just faint. Perhaps I'd be the epitome of poise and time my best smile perfectly with the poof of the camera flash. Maybe I'd trip on my high heels and fall into the ferns.

By the time we filed into the amphitheater, nature had foiled our neatness. Our robes, perfectly aligned before, now billowed crazily in the breeze, and hands went to hats during stronger gusts. I doubt anyone minded, for the sky blazed blue without a hint of rain, and no amount of wind would ever discover what was tucked under each fluttering sleeve.

As the president finally rose to present the degrees, families and friends settled to a hush, and the wind could be heard stirring the tall oaks around us. I scanned behind me through the sea of black and spotted my roommate. We smiled. Then I looked at the upturned, listening faces of those classmates I didn't know. Suddenly, they didn't seem at all like strangers.

In their eyes, I recognized reflections of myself, images of past struggles and rewards which they too had known, but differently. We were here to celebrate not just ourselves as individuals but ourselves as a group, having journeyed together and grown in ways no other set of young women could have done anywhere. Our reward was us -- as we were, as we had become.

Then, as if crystallizing out of a dream, came the cue:

``Mrs. President, I now present the Class of 1984.''

In one gigantic burst of pent-up joy, long dreamed of, we set free our hostages. From beneath black sleeves shot bright blue. The audience gasped. Five-hundred balloons popped out of hiding and swarmed over our heads. Whooooooooeeee! All of us and the crowd, after sitting so reservedly, became a flurry of waving arms -- of clapping and cheering people -- all leaning back, squinting into the sun, watching the shiny balloons swirl up and up . . . . Maybe we were kind of awesome.

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