Not a bang, but…

Graduation from university is a considerable achievement.  Whether or not the experience provided genuine challenge, and whether or not it conveyed stronger skills or character of any sort, a university degree nonetheless entails the satisfaction of a process that takes years, and sometimes just the act of crossing the finish line is impressive, whether or not you ran an especially good race.

So, one would expect that graduation ceremonies would properly reflect the scope of this achievement.  Fireworks.  Brass bands.  Prostitutes.

(the pretty ones, not the cheap ones with missing teeth)

Yes, one would expect that.

Last week I went to five graduation ceremonies, because I have a fair number of friends who completed their degrees this year.  I would possibly have been to more, but a few just happened at bad times, or even directly conflicted with one another.

(One might imagine me, eager-to-please but confounded, standing between two close friends, each luring me to one graduation ceremony or the other with promises of treats and affection.  “Here, boy!  We all know you love me more!”  “No, here boy!  I bought this shiny new Playstation game for you!”  Actually, both times I had to choose I went to the ceremony with the most comfortable seats.)

Now, graduation ceremonies are a little like sex: they take hours but lead up to one especially nice ten-second moment.  The thing about sex, though, is that the rest of the time is still great fun; with graduation ceremonies, not so much.  If I’m going to be sitting there for two hours waiting for the person I actually know and like to walk across the stage, the least I deserve is something more interesting than my shoe to look at in the meanwhile.  Instead, most commencement ceremonies are the rough equivalent of that boring sexual encounter where you spent most of the time trying to remember what the fourth thing was that you needed to pick up at the store after yogurt, apples, and orange juice.

(It’s always milk, by the way.  No one can ever remember milk.)

After one ceremony, a friend asked me how many others I’d been to.  I answered five, which would have been correct a few days later, but that day had actually been the third.  Why did I mistakenly answer five?  Probably because the other two were just that long and boring.

I’m not blaming the school, exactly.  Certainly, these days a public university can hardly afford fireworks and Dixie bands.  Even the financially-stable private school across town has been forced to cut back the caviar and flame-jets at graduation.  The problem, really, is that commencement ceremonies, pretty much by definition, aren’t actually for anyone there.  Obviously, we’re all, audience and graduates alike, there for a reason.  But, that reason is always one person, or a perhaps a few, and not the entire thing, not all the other people, and certainly not the commencement address by a prominent personage whose achievements unfortunately do not include lessons in effective public speaking.  As such, there is literally no one at that ceremony with a reason to be there for the entire event (or, in fact, more than about ten seconds of it) beyond pure politeness.

It is, sadly, considered rude to rush into a ceremony at the half-way mark, loudly conclude, “Ah, they’re doing the N’s now; we showed up just in time!” and then leave just as abruptly minutes later: “I’m so happy for Bill.  Let’s get out of here before we have to watch any of these other losers graduate.”

I like to think that if someone actually did that, I would mentally reproach them.  Honestly, though, I would probably just be enormously jealous that I hadn’t done the same.

Regardless, because we’re so determined to be polite, we all sit there, for the whole thing.  We try to stir some emotion for the dozens — perhaps hundreds — of people we don’t know, but in the end we never do; those are total strangers down there graduating, and frankly we just don’t give a rat’s fuzzy butt about them.

Now, this post sounds like a rather strict condemnation of the whole commencement process.  That’s actually not what I’m trying to convey here, and several of the ceremonies I attended this year were reasonably interesting, at least by the standards of the genre.  The fact remains, though, that these events really are rather a trial for everyone involved, and I have never yet met, heard about, or even seen speculated to exist anyone who has ever attended a university graduation ceremony with rapt enjoyment.  That’s just not how it goes.

But I still attend these things.  Why?

Well, the strawberries and cookies afterwards are good.

But mostly, I figure it like this: if these people can spend four years, or more, getting their degree, then I can forego a few hours of my life to show that I noticed the achievement.  Yes, it’s boring.  Oh my god is it boring.  But, the whole ceremony is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for a university experience that is itself mostly wasted time interrupted by rare moments of what you actually went there to get.

I care about these people enough to remind them that I care.  If graduation ceremonies were fun, it wouldn’t mean anything to be there.  In point of fact, these university departments are arguably doing a poor job just by making the ceremonies as tolerable as they are.  If, for example, every ceremony started with kicking each audience member in the groin, I would be more able to remind these people how much I like them.  I’m quite certain that even in these tough economic times, public universities can afford to hire vagrants to kick the friends and family of graduates in the groin.

So, graduation ceremonies are like sex, and like the entire university experience, which is therefore also like sex, which is also like being kicked in the groin.  No wonder people work so hard to get into good schools; who wants to spend four years sleeping with an ugly person, just to get kicked in the groin?

Which, again, raises the issue of why there are no hookers at these things.

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