Gradations and Graduations

It’s May, the month of yes you may:

Hedonism fits the season, but it’s also a month full of potential anxiety triggers for postacs: a friend’s tidy new Yale diploma (written in Latin, because Yale), a conference roommate’s new tenure-track job, lots of Facebook pictures of people in wizard robes and octagonal hats. (The square ones don’t pack the same emotional punch.) Graduation season: a time for postacs to wonder what graduating actually got you (if you finished) or what it might have gotten you (if you jumped off the ship before it finished sinking).

My own relationship with graduation has always been ambivalent. I (sort of) dropped out of high school so I could got school overseas, but my first year in Wales ended early enough for me to attend my class’s high school graduation. I spent part of it sitting with another non-graduating ex-classmate. Mostly, I remember the blue plastic bleachers and watching the 83 graduates while mentally claiming all the awards I would have won if I’d stayed. Afterward, I went to the all-night party at the bowling alley and won some door prizes. I’d said my goodbyes the previous year—my junior yearbook was full of the clever and “clever” ways 16 year-olds say goodbye. It was, at best, a footnote to a transition I’d already made.

When I graduated from Macalester, it felt like a big deal. It remains the only graduation I’ve ever walked in. I got to wear the special gold summa cum laude tassels. I doubtless undercut the effect by wearing my beat-up Indiana Jones hat and the really hideous goatee I sported all senior year. It was May in Minnesota, an absolutely gorgeous time of year that you appreciate all the more for the winter you escaped only a few weeks earlier. The pipe band played us in. Garrison Keillor (who lives down the street from the school) gave the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard. (It boiled down to “ask your parents for money and go do something stupid while you still have a chance.”) I had a girlfriend (whom I’d eventually marry) and a summer of playing ultimate and studying early music ahead of me. It was a good day.

The reasons it was a good day had very little to do with the transition the occasion was supposed to mark. The weather was nice. My family was in town. I got to hear an entertaining speech. It wasn’t, though, like I was done being a student. I knew I was headed to Ohio to go write music. (I thought was going to Ohio to write music. That’s not exactly what ended up happening.) Plus, ceremonies are stupid and boring and it’s only the people who really matter.

Those are some of the reasons I didn’t walk for my master’s nor go to get hooded for my doctorate. Nobody from my tiny cohort graduated at the same time. The ceremonies were large and impersonal. The bigger reason was that my graduate degrees just…trailed…off. Both my thesis and my dissertation were completed at odd points of the calendar year, months before the ceremonies they earned me. Paying to rent or buy regalia seemed ridiculous. By the registration deadline for my doctoral commencement, I’d already decided to leave the Academy.

At the time, I just didn’t care. A year later, I wonder if I should have. I wonder whether a ceremony would have helped clean up the break with being in school. Dissertations trail off and overlap with employment and leave jagged edges. Maybe an afternoon in wizard clothes could have sanded those down. Maybe I should have had that big party I was promised “when I finished.” Those are the things I wonder when I see my friends’ pictures and announcements.

Graduation, like gradation (and grading, for that matter) is about steps. Literal ones across a stage. Metaphorical ones that provoke contorted analogies. The trick of graduation is that, if your really mean it, you have to keep taking steps. Some of my friends are now showing up on the professor side of the “professor and student” end of year photos. Others are in the more typical May photos of picnics and playgrounds and wildflowers. They’re all steps. Regardless of how we choose to present them to the internet, they matter more for the taking than their size.

Don’t sweat the wizard clothes.

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