I taught for years before attending a commencement ceremony as a faculty member. Most of my students were adults in continuing education, studying not in expectation of a degree but simply to exercise and refine their writing skills. Occasionally one requested a recommendation for the college's graduate writing program, but whether matriculation or graduation ensued, I never knew.
So joining the annual commencement procession seemed faintly fraudulent: None of the undergraduates were former students nor, in all likelihood, were those receiving graduate degrees. I was content each spring to sayau revoir rather than goodbye, feeling - in the way of adult education - that the process was ongoing and that I was likely to encounter many of the same faces in the fall. Graduation was never the goal; good writing was.
But this year, impelled by an impulse I didn't understand until midway through commencement, I joined the faculty procession, gowned and hooded and slightly bewildered by the press of so many proud parents, by the great throng of graduating students, and by the piercing brass clarity of the accompanying quintet. The experience was rich in resonance, reminding me of my own graduation from that same institution 30 years earlier.
Outwardly, little had changed: The same cavernous tent spanned the great lawn, the same huge flower baskets flanked the stone terrace the students would cross to receive their diplomas.
Once again, the day seemed portaled by promise and befogged with disbelief: Had 16 years or more of continuous schooling finally come to a close?
Were the students truly no longer in thrall to professors and prerequisites?
Was that productive past now merely a prelude and if so, prelude to what?
It was a heady, bewildering moment and it all came rushing back along with the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance."
I remembered, too, the feeling of anti-climax that had followed hard upon the euphoria of my own graduation. After all the celebration and congratulations had ebbed, I'd begun to consider what it was that I held in my hand, what I had accomplished, what all those years of study meant. It would be decades before I sorted it all out, but by commencement evening I had begun to glimpse the fearsome hollow of unlimited possibility, the abyss of boundless freedom.
Until that moment, life had been carefully scripted. I knew what was expected of me year after year, what I expected of myself. But now I was on my own, free to enter the job market or apply to graduate school, to travel or write, to marry and start a family. Or perhaps I would discover some wholly new and transformative path not yet pursued.
Then, too, I was free simply to stagnate in indecision. After all those years of study I felt oddly unprepared for life. Within days of my release from academia I yearned anew for its comfortable routines. Where would self-esteem and accomplishment come from without the annual rites and rewards of the school year? I was not prepared to be set adrift upon an indifferent sea of infinite potential.
Were these recent graduates better prepared for what lay ahead, I wondered as I marched through the cheering crowd and took my place on the stone terrace. If similar concerns bedeviled them, no trace lingered upon their ecstatic faces. They were focused instead on graduating, and roared their excitement when the president came forward and announced that their college days would soon be over.
Restlessly, they endured valedictory and commencement addresses, eager to get on with it, and when the time finally arrived to receive their degrees, they roared yet again.
I turned to watch their faces as the first students climbed the stairs and prepared, one by one, to step forward. None looked familiar to me, but to those around me they waved and blew kisses, even broke ranks to receive a hug. I could imagine what their cheering classmates and family members were feeling, but not what was passing through the hearts of my smiling colleagues.
And then, to my astonishment, I glimpsed a familiar face. Near the middle of the long line of graduates stood one of my first students, a mother of three who had joined my class more than a decade ago. She had remained there for several years before deciding to enter the college's graduate program. Now, years later, her children were grown, and the novel she had begun so long ago was finally complete. She spotted me just before her name was called and smiled beatifically.
I watched her stride forward to collect her diploma and then descend to the cheers of family and friends. The wish expressed so many years ago had finally come to fruition: She had succeeded in devoting herself to both family and art, and the sense of that accomplishment radiated from her contented face.
In that instant I understood what those around me must be feeling, what it meant to have helped mentor another in the realization of a distant dream. And I felt a sudden sense of gratitude toward the institution on her behalf and on my own.
This was a place of fulfillments - the day was saturated with them - a place of mind and spirit committed to raising up successive generations of creative thinkers. Here time had an odd habit of circling back upon itself year after academic year, the faces changing but not the commitment, not the hope, not the achievement.
I had failed to appreciate all that 30 years ago. This moment wasn't about the next step, it wasn't about tomorrow's job prospects; it was about celebrating all that had come before, about the enormous effort and dedication that had gone into reaching this high place. It was about taking a moment to express one's thankfulness and delight in the journey, and holding fast to a fleeting joy. How few such opportunities life affords.
I watched my former student disappear back into the sea of caps and gowns, my heart enlarged by her presence. And when the last of the undergraduates had been called forward, and the president had declared "These exercises are now concluded," I went looking to congratulate her.
I found her posing for photos flanked by her three towering sons, speaking with well-wishers, beaming with pride. I hung back a moment, enjoying her exhilaration until she spotted me and shouted, "I did it!" and threw her arms around my neck. "It took me 11 years," she said, "but I finally did it."
"Yes, you did," I replied, hoping that feeling of accomplishment would sustain her not for just this one memorable day but for a lifetime.