22 May 2011

Graduation Day

I have spent my entire life in academia, and so I have attended many graduation ceremonies, some of which were even marking my own passage from one educational state to another. And I think that graduations are interesting phenomena not because they are not significant, but because they are so formal and impersonal. This remarkable achievement celebrated so communally in fact has no personal touch at all: the graduates are a sea of distinctive colors but no distinctive faces. The graduates are in attendance though I wonder if they are really present. Who remembers the speeches delivered from Commencement stages? These commencements are not educational but, rather, are about education. No one listens because everybody already knows what will be said because it has already been said. And perhaps that is appropriate, because indeed, for now, I hope briefly,formal education has ended and the graduates exist for a brief time in a sort of limbo—not in school and not at work, children still and yet children no more. Commencement represents this stasis. 
Today’s graduation at Ithaca College was no different. As are all such ceremonies, today’s event was an extremely structured event: the caps and gowns, the processional marches accompanied by Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the series of speeches and charges to the graduates, and then the conferring of the degrees. Students cheered themselves, shifted their tassels from right side to left, and then tossed their mortar boards into the air. Then follows the recessional, accompanied today by a trumpet piece by Henry Purcell and watched carefully by the parents looking intently for their particular graduate. In the audience today were many thousands of people far enough away from their children so as not to be able to actually see them; so many graduates that no one walks across the stage individually to receive their diplomas. The entire event is almost anti-climactic and quite passive—the real event was the last classes, the final issuance of grades and the tearful good-byes. Today, the graduates did just what they were told to do, and in fact, did very little. Only during the department receptions did I have a sense that my daughter studied here with actual people in small, participatory classrooms. When her professors wished her farewell and Godspeed, I knew she had lived here. 
Nevertheless, as I prepare to leave Ithaca having celebrated my daughter’s graduation from college, I feel settled into a emotional state that borders on a sadness. This feeling is not anxiety—I would recognize that one easily, for I have for years known its contours and characteristics well.   And for that there are pills, and I do not think any would offer me relief now. Nor does this feeling approach nostalgia, some longing for an emotion that never occurred. Indeed, for me there is nothing about this event to be nostalgic about: I did not attend this school and except for Emma’s enrollment here, I cannot imagine ever having visited this city. If nostalgia is a longing for an emotion that never happened, then I have no longing for any emotion that definitely did not happen. And I can barely remember my own college graduation and so I do not think I can be nostalgic about that for which there are no memories. Certainly I do not feel any regret, that is, a sorrow for an act or a failure to act, because I think my daughter’s experience here has been valuable and like most experiences, imperfect. I would not suffer any pangs of regret for her; and as for me, I have done from Wisconsin all that I could for Ithaca. No, I have about this event no regrets, no tears goodbye. There is so much more to look forward to after Sunday’s ceremony. 
But this city has been part of my life for four years because my daughter lived here, established a community here, ate and studied and wept here for any number of reasons. Here was her daily life, and I was not infrequently invited into that life, sometimes with some reticence and even at times, some resentment. I cannot measure her leaving here in terms of loss or gain; rather, her graduation marks not a change in currency so much as a change in markets. I remain a viable player. I remain a citizen. 
It would be a cliché to say that Emma’s graduation makes some major transition in the nature of our family life and the household. In an ideal sense, she is no longer a dependent. Ha! Also cliché would be the notion that her graduation represents another marker of my aging. But of course, it would be quite solipsistic to bemoan my passing years as if only I suffered them. But underlying every cliché lies a truth, and so I am sadder that I and everyone else has aged, though paradoxically, I don’t think I have much desire to be any younger even were it possible. I was so much older then. 
So, what is it? At some early time this morning I considered this: Emma’s graduation means that the nature of my relationship with her—and with the rest of the family—changes, and I am uncertain how that might act out. It is back to the idea of the shift in the market; the environment has changed, and though the participants look the same, what each seeks has changed.  The uncertainty unsettles me. Is part of the emotion I experience now a result of this unsettlement? I could look with excitement and anticipation for the next phase, but I am not yet doing so? Why? Maybe Emma’s enrollment there pulled me out of my current place and settled me there to immerse myself once again in study and reading, and to live once again like a college student. I think I must have liked my years as a student more than I have ever acknowledged. Who knew? I returned a bit to a type of innocence, and I enjoyed it.
Though there have been many moments of discomfort and difficulty over the past four years, I have have reveled in her experiences here. I think of “Bob Dylan’s Dream:” “I wish, I wish in vain, that we could sit simply in that room once again.” 
And so tomorrow in the early morning at 4:00 o’clock, we will make our way to the airport and leave Ithaca, New York. I will walk once more through the innocuous Detroit airport, and begin again anew.  It will be a commencement.


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