I’m a sucker for “Pomp and Circumstance.” It doesn’t matter if it’s played on a tinny piano or a world-class organ, it always seems to catch me by the throat. I hear those stately chords and reach for the Kleenex.
I’m a graduation groupie. Come late spring, I feel the old familiar stirring in my veins, a persistent urge to sit in an auditorium or on a grassy quad and listen to speeches about the journey and the crossroads and the meaning of commencement.
The speeches, mostly interchangeable, are as much a part of the ritual as the caps and gowns and thunderous applause. I go for the ritual, and the music. But mostly, I go for the stories.
It’s a day of visual vignettes, living snapshots of people hurrying toward a defining moment in their lives. I watch a pretty girl in a sundress run past my office window, her black robe on a hanger flapping in the breeze. There are clusters of parents in pastel new-for-the-occasion dresses and carefully chosen ties, toddlers in ruffled frocks and miniature three-piece suits. There are professors in velvet-trimmed gowns and that Ph.D. headgear that always looks slightly goofy.
It’s a day of hope and it’s a day of triumph, both for the valedictorian and the C-minus student who barely squeaked through the chemistry final. I watch them pose for pictures and try to read their futures: Does that confident smile mean a great job is waiting somewhere? Are those tears of joy, or sadness for a chapter irrevocably finished?
My own graduations seem suddenly vivid, two long-ago New England June days that served as bookends to a period of quantum change in my life and in the life of America. My first commencement ceremony followed the centuries-old tradition of the convent school I attended. We wore white pique dresses and wreaths of laurel in our hair, and carried bouquets of daisies and asters. The bishop was there to present the diplomas, and our biggest worry was how to balance the leather folder while kneeling to kiss his ring. Then “Pomp and Circumstance” wafted through the chapel, and we processed down the aisle one last time. The cloister receded; the world beckoned. In an instant, it seemed, we went from schoolgirls to quasi-grownups, rising college freshmen, citizens of a new age.
Some years and several lifetimes later, I graduated from college. Peace signs made of flowers flanked the podium, and several graduates carried placards protesting the Vietnam War. My 2-year-old son, held at bay with animal crackers, observed the solemnities from his father’s lap. Under my copious academic gown, I was seven months pregnant with my second child. I had covered a lot of ground in my college career: French literature from the Middle Ages to Sartre and Camus; the modern American novel; infant ear infections; morning sickness; no-show babysitters and a car that died on the way to my comprehensive exams. The laurel wreaths and white pique dresses of an earlier commencement seemed to belong to another era and another person altogether. I was a grownup, and there was nothing quasi about it. The picture from that day, a faded Polaroid, shows me and my husband on the front lawn of our rental cottage. I am holding my diploma before me like a trophy, or a shield.
This weekend, I will attend back-to-back graduations in Memphis and Nashville. I will choke up at “Pomp and Circumstance” and rifle my purse for Kleenex and listen attentively to speeches about the journey and the road. But mostly, I will watch the faces and read the stories around me, watch with reverence as the truth of the moment unfolds.