A musing on the costumes of commencement

In the course of delivering a few commencement addresses, I have become increasingly aware of the strangeness - and the beauty - of graduation exercises. The ceremonies themselves, for a couple of years now, have increasingly become the subject of what I say.

This is the time of year when we perform what are perhaps the most elaborate secular rituals in American life. (I am not a Mason.) The regalia of odd caps, archaic gowns, hoods with symbolic colors; the mace and in some cases bagpipers; the citations in ancient tongues: By comparison, the processes of swearing in a president or becoming a citizen are performed as briskly and plainly as getting a driver's license.

The regalia seems almost designed to emphasize the youth of most graduates: the rubber sandals or tattered running shoes peeping from under the gown, the nearly adolescent walk contrasting with the stately attire. (Are the outfits truly historical, or are they a designer's fantasy of authentic outfits?) The frisky variations (a pineapple or inflatable globe attached to the mortarboard, the "hire me" sign worn over the gown) emphasize the formality they tease. So, too, does the beachball that bobs over the heads of the graduates (unnerving sight for the speaker: There is no greater compliment than having the beachballs stop).

When I was a beginning teacher at Wellesley College, I saw an amazingly poised Hillary Rodham deliver extemporaneous remarks in response to Sen. Edward Brooke. The senator had spoken a series of bromides, and the 21-year-old class president corrected him with devastating courtesy: We need you to speak to us about the crisis in our cities, Senator, and we need you to speak to us about the war in Southeast Asia. Or words to that effect.

That event was rather famous at the time, and has become somewhat legendary. In my memory, the ceremonial garb seems essential to the drama: Edward Brooke, the handsome man of power wearing the robes of study and contemplation, and the thin, bespectacled young woman wearing those same robes with a quality of the child playing dress-up, in contrast to her mature cogency. Few college seniors would have the presence to improvise a critique of the senator's remarks, and among those, still fewer could have avoided mere sauciness.

Without the costumes, that remarkable drama might have had far less force. What the caps and gowns added was a sense that Hillary Rodham was appealing to values older and more deeply rooted than anyone present could articulate. In asking the senator to live up to the occasion, she was asking him to be an adequate representative of the past.

The Rodham-Brooke encounter suggests the nature of these occasions: They embody the relation not exactly between youth and maturity, but between the unthinkably ancient and what is yet to come. The bizarre hats, the procession to music, the gentle professor carrying a mace, the college president wearing a symbolic necklace - all symbolize something like the very tradition of symbol-making itself. The stranger the garb, the more remote the past that is invoked. "We got these arts and sciences from many preceding generations," the outfits imply, "and it will be up to these tyros to preserve and enhance them." The beauty of these occasions lies in their allegiance to the past, an allegiance expressed in part by odd clothing. And that allegiance is symbolically donned by the (mostly) young graduates.

Or so I read these peculiar get-ups and goings-on. I must rely, after all, on my metier, which involves attention to symbols and implicit meanings. The poet does not necessarily have access to some of the commencement speaker's standard equipment: foreign-policy pronouncements, jokes, reflections on the future of technology, military anecdotes, financial advice.

Poetry does, on the other hand, offer something at the very heart of the ceremonial commencement, if I am right that the occasion honors the passing on of wisdom from the past. The compact and effective resource of quotation enacts that process of cultural recall. I have quoted poems by Czeslaw Milosz, by Robert Hayden, by Emily Dickinson, and others, on the theme of continuity from generation to generation. Some people have asked for references, wanting to read the poems. Some more, I hope, will remember the poet's name and look for the poem.

But hopes for memory of what is said must be modest. The speaker at my graduation from Rutgers was Adlai Stevenson, a mid-century statesman of great significance. I don't remember a thing he said. The speaker at my wife's graduation from Stanford three years later was Chief Justice Earl Warren. Neither my wife nor I can remember anything of that speech, either.

I'm a little ashamed to make that confession (though the audience's short memory does, on the other hand, take a little pressure off the speaker). But perhaps the forgetting of what is said recognizes that the content is less important than the form; and the meaning of the form is profound.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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