Monday, May 6, 2013

Dads and Grads

After an exhaustive search this morning, I unearthed a poem that I wrote more than 45 years ago—on the day I graduated from high school. Stating the obvious, I entitled it “A Poem Written on My Graduation Day.” Not surprisingly, it is a bit pretentious. The middle stanza, reflecting on how my life will be changing after graduation, goes like this:

It is so rare
            to spend a day in search of faces once seen
And never found again;
            Like a glass of wine once tasted and lost
                        or a dream that fades in the morning world.

It is hard to imagine me using a wine image, considering that my experience at the time was pretty much limited to Manischewitz Concord Grape, a taste that few people mind losing touch with. But I was feeling a little bittersweet that day, finishing one phase of my life and about to embark on the next.

Posing before my high school graduation.
I was always somewhat left of center.
I am thinking about this because my daughter Amanda will be graduating this weekend from business school at Emory in Atlanta. We’ll be there cheering her on and consoling her in her sadness at ending a great experience at Emory. She’s going to suck it up by traveling for two months with her B-School buddies to parts of Southeast Asia that I remember hoping to avoid with all my passion in the early 1970s.

Amanda’s upcoming graduation brings to mind a number of graduation days from my past—my own, my brother’s, and my children’s.

My graduations blur a little bit. For my high school one, I had to play “Pomp and Circumstance” endlessly on my saxophone as part of the band while more than 750 sweating students (it was Savannah in late May, remember) marched into the stadium. Then I had to run to find my place with the other graduates. I think Frank Barragan made a speech, or maybe Marcia Hancock, who I believe was valedictorian. (I sometimes read their names in those constant e-mails I get from classmates.com, which I joined at the free level but have never paid to be elevated to "gold membership," which would permit me to actually read the names of the people who may have inquired about me in some way.) I also remember having a big smile on my face after the ceremony because I was more than ready to leave Savannah for the “more exciting” —or at least different—North.

By the time I graduated from college up north in 1971, my politics had changed somewhat, and the country’s had changed dramatically. In a protest action, most of us rejected wearing a cap and gown that year, proposing to give the money that we would have paid for graduation attire to support some anti-war cause. I suspect most of us just enjoyed feeling like hard-asses and simply kept the money in our pockets. Actually, being anti-war was foremost on my mind at the time. I had been declared 1-A by the draft board two months before graduation and had a lottery number of 11. Draft counseling showed me a possible way to avoid the draft, and I barraged the draft board with doctors’ letters. They worked. Two weeks before graduation, I was given 4-F status, and I began packing for graduate school to get my teaching degree. (That’s how I missed seeing the sights and sites in Southeast Asia that Amanda will experience on her trip after graduation.)

A year later, I had met Audrey at graduate school, and together we decided not even to attend graduation, opting to receive our master’s degrees in the mail. How un-memorable!

So much for me. 

I remember two things about my brother’s graduations from college and medical school. The night before his college graduation at Emory, I slept on the top bunk in his fraternity room. We needed to be up by 9 or so, so he set the alarm for 6:30 or 7 and kept pushing the snooze button every 10 minutes. I spent most of the time counting seconds until the radio blared back on. He slept between wake-ups. By the time we finally got up to go to the ceremony, I was ready to tear my hair out.

His medical school ceremony was in 95-degree heat in the Bronx. I mostly remember a woman sitting behind us, speaking in a pure New York accent and saying, “Maw-tin Luther King said ‘Oy have a dream.’ This was moy dream, moy son de dok-tah.”

For my children’s college graduations, we could have used some of that Bronx heat. Brett’s Hampshire ceremonies may have been held in May, but the weather felt like early March—cold and drizzly with the potential for snowflakes. The two proud grandmothers huddled inside their raincoats, shivering while they cheered. It’s what you could expect from Hampshire—something a little lopsided.


 Amanda and Brett pose with the happy (and shivering) rain-coated
grandmothers at their respective graduations.
It was only slightly warmer at Amanda’s Union graduation in Schenectady (I love trying to spell that name and wondering whether the t comes before the d or vice versa.)  Luckily, the sun made an appearance. Union wanted to prove it was more conventional than Hampshire, I guess.

Brett's first-ever graduation from kindergarten. He earned a gold star
there for "excellence in nap" but later developed many other talents.
But we loved all of those ceremonies, and we’re looking forward to the one this weekend. We’ll probably hear someone point out once again that commencement can be defined as both the end of something and the beginning of something, especially a journey. And Audrey and I will think how impossibly young all of the graduates look. And we’ll take pictures—this time with a phone, of all things. And Amanda will probably be laughing and crying at almost the same time, and we’ll join in with her. And I might try to write a new graduation poem. But the wine this time will be more vintage and better aged—just like me.

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