On Graduating One More Time
I just got home from UAB’s Spring Commencement. I love the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony; the procession of the faculty, all dressed in their traditional regalia; the graduating students glowing with excitement; the inspirational speeches: the wonderful music of the band. It is a beautiful and time-honored part of academia, and is such a hopeful time, a recognition of goals attained, a time of new beginnings…and also a time of endings. That is the part at which I have never been very good.
Even though I have been at UAB since the fall of 2002, this is the first graduation ceremony I have attended. Unlike the small private college I taught at in my first job where the entire faculty was involved in graduation, UAB only has a certain number of people represent each School or Department. I am so glad that I volunteered this year, especially as I had three wonderful students graduating today…but it was an emotional experience. My relationship with graduation is long with many complex layers, and I think I have avoided it since I came to UAB for a fresh start so many years ago. The ritual of graduation triggers many memories for me that are painful, on top of having to say goodbye to special students that I have come to know and love over four or more years of working closely with them in lessons and classes.
The tugs at my heart began at home as I put on the heavy black robe and doctoral hood, with the colors pink for music, and blue for the University of Kentucky, my DMA alma mater. I have only walked in graduation as a student once, and that was in high school. I can still see my mom, brothers, Aunt Sara and Uncle Russell beaming at me, cheering for me. My high school was huge, and I was part of a class of 1,072 students celebrating graduation on the football field of Brandon Senior High School (as we sat in metal folding chairs with an approaching lightning storm…it was the 80s….). I remember walking by the band that had been a part of my heart and soul throughout school, conducted by my band director Lonnie Keen, a true father figure to me. I went to receive my diploma and shake the Principal’s hand, smiling and crying at the same time. One person was missing from this joyous celebration- my father. Though he praised the importance of education and berated his children if grades were not high enough, he seemed to have an aversion for being a part of any ceremony celebrating academic success. Mom more than made up for his absence, her ‘pride-o-meter’ on full throttle.
I didn’t attend graduation after my undergrad at Florida State, and I’m not quite sure why. I was not much of a joiner, I suppose, and I was anxious to get home and start applying for public school band positions, finally getting to do what I had studied and worked so hard for. Instead, I celebrated with my friends from the School of Music with lasagna and laughter. When my first husband and I graduated with our Masters degrees from the University of North Texas, I followed his lead and chose not to go through the ceremony. In its place, we each headed out to our new college jobs- mine in North Carolina, and his in New York. I remember feeling a tinge of disappointment, but that quickly evaporated in the excitement of moving and starting a new career path.
While teaching at Mars Hill College, I fell in love with the rituals and traditions of graduation. I loved feeling a part of this family of close knit professors who mentored their students and processed in with pomp and ceremony to oversee their crossing the threshold into the next stage of their lives. My first husband also joined the faculty of Mars Hill, and over the years we attended many graduations together, helping to provide music for the ceremony. By the time we had taken a leave to complete work for our DMA degrees at the University of Kentucky, the idea of going through graduation was not a happy one, as our marriage was deteriorating rapidly. This is perhaps the only one I regret, as the doctoral hooding ceremony is a beautiful and significant thing to experience.
Today as I processed into a filled-to-capacity Bartow Arena with my colleagues, the excitement was palpable. I smiled and waved at our band director and my students playing ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ and took my place. We watched the platform speakers, Deans, and President led in by a colleague carrying the Mace, an old academic tradition. The bagpipers marched around us, and immediately I teared up. My oldest brother, Bud, was a passionate piper and played for many military funerals and ceremonies. His death a few years ago is still something I feel wash over me at times. As the ceremony continued, I thought of my mother and how proud she always was of my schooling, how much she sacrificed for me and loved me. I thought of my failed marriage and missed opportunities. I thought of my aunt and uncle who supported me in every way they could while they were alive. I was the first of my family to get a doctoral degree, and it really meant something to my family.
While the ceremony brought up some ambivalent memories, other memories came as well. I thought of the thousands of students I have taught and worked with over the years, the many special clarinet students who still keep in touch, telling me of their lives as teachers and performers, their children. I am no genius, and I am often in awe of the amazing intelligence and talent of my colleagues at UAB, the people working to cure cancer, the people performing operas in Korea, playing recitals all over Europe, transplanting kidneys to save the lives of those in need. There is so much knowledge here. I am just a clarinet player who loves what I do and works hard to do a good job. How blessed I am to be here, to do my best to guide these young people on their way. Today really felt like I graduated one more time, one more healing ceremony to recognize the gifts of the past and the many exciting possibilities of the future.