Nature provided perfection: a clear, Carolina blue sky, temperatures comfortably hovering in the upper seventies, a slight breeze. Well-dressed people of all ages streamed purposefully out of parking lots, my husband, Ralf, and I among them.
We prepared for a ritual.
We gathered up our robes, hats, and tassels, and walked among hundreds. Today, we conferred degrees on over 4,000 students at UNC-Charlotte.
Faculty were directed to the bowels of the student activity center, where we lined up in twos, told stories of our students, and prepared for a ceremony that is always important and nearly unendurable.
As the faculty marched out into the large sports auditorium with the wretched, back-breaking seats, I fantasized about innovation, spontaneity, and the use of Real Words. I imagined casting all clichés aside. I began to pray that I would not find myself anesthetized by a series of mundane speeches.
This time, I brought a little notepad just to keep myself alert. Ralf sat to my right. A technical writing professor was on my left.
“Are you taking notes?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said with quiet determination. “I am planning to write down every single endlessly repeated phrase from every graduation ceremony that ever was.”
“This auspicious university,” began one of our speakers.
“Did she say “suspicious university?” Ralf asked.
“Distinguished faculty and graduates,” she intoned. “Education is a valuable, life-long tool. We are here to celebrate you and your accomplishments. We honor your teachers, who offered you important and proper guidance.”
The clichés came faster than I could write. The word “endeavor” had yet to appear, however.
“We appreciate your many endeavors….”
“Ha!” I muttered.
“…you’ve worked long and hard to get to this important milestone. We offer our thanks to family and friends for their love and support.”
After a series of forgettable speeches, graduates began lining up. The doctoral candidates processed to dignified silence. The M.A. students generated an occasional shout of support. Our undergraduates, with mortarboards glittering with sparkly accouterments, sayings, and a plethora of flowers and trim cheer, raised their fists, and gratefully received their due decibels. The speakers read through hundreds and hundreds of names. The dean shook each hand, a picture was taken of every face.
But they all blurred together on the large screens and the sounds of most names were drowned out. A young man sang our university anthem.
Hail University! To you we sing our praise. May Charlotte’s light dispel the night, illumine all our days. In Charlotte’s crown the brightness gem we see. Without your power our finest hour would hold no victory. So let us love your life and cherish your great name. To aid your cause and uphold your laws and your enduring fame.
What does one long for?
Next year, stand them all up, I say, confer the degrees en masse, and then send them off to their departments where we, their teachers, will honor them with real ritual and words that are attuned to the particulars of their college careers.
- To R, a sixty-something-year-old who grew to trust in her own fine mind: Yes, you are ready for graduate school.
- To R, an army vet who made me leap out of my office chair because, finally, argument, evidence and structure came together so powerfully in the first paper of your fourth semester with me that I danced into the kitchen high on your achievements and went back to my computer screen to type YAYYYYYYYYYYYY across the bottom of the page.
- To M, another vet, who I invited to learn to write with me, warning of the work ahead. Thank you for doing that work, sweating out each sentence and paragraph in draft after draft. You learned the power of words (and how to command them).
Give us the opportunity to acknowledge our students not with clichés and shouts but with their own stories offered back to them and their families. Allow us to look into their eyes as we hand them their degrees. Allow us to honor them with a pride that is personal.