Changing Commencement

With yesterday’s Cranbrook Academy of Art ceremony under our belts, Kish and I have now endured more than a dozen commencement ceremonies for ourselves, the boys, and assorted family members.

IMG_20150509_063237We’ve clutched the colorful programs with the year prominently noted and the lists of graduates and degree recipients.  We’ve heard the strains of Pomp and Circumstance and student musical offerings.  We’ve nodded at the ponderous welcoming remarks of principals, deans, and dignitaries, watched countless honorary degrees be conferred, and seen thousands of students march by to receive their sheepskins.

And we’ve heard commencement addresses.  Boy, have we ever!  And with only two exceptions, they instantly were flushed down the memory hole, never to be recalled or considered again.  The two exceptions were Chip Reid’s funny and graceful address at Vassar a few years ago, and the other is another commencement address so shockingly bad — so lengthy and leaden in its delivery, so self-absorbed in its rambling year-by-year account of the speaker’s career, so oblivious to the rumblings of the benumbed and increasingly agitated audience, and so pointless and irrelevant to the lives of the graduates and everyone else — that it will forever be treasured, perversely, as a part of family lore.  That commencement address, at least, was unforgettable.

Yesterday, Richard posed a reasonable question:  why not change the hoary model that every rational person despises?  While a public awarding of degrees is an appropriate way of recognizing true achievement, why not ditch the banal speeches and cookie-cutter programming and jettison forever the dreaded “commencement address”?  Why not give the students a larger role and allow them to at least display the uniqueness of their class, or instead do everyone a favor and get right to the photo ops and degree handoffs?

Any change to the pompous ceremony would be welcome.  There has got to be a better way.

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Getting The Sheepskin

Today we witnessed the Vassar Commencement.  This year is Vassar’s sesquicentennial (i.e., its 150th birthday) and it was a special day for everyone who attended.

At Vassar, the commencements are held outdoors in a beautiful setting.  The stage is set up in a natural amphitheater with the Vassar lake in the background and tall pines framing the stage, and the chairs for the graduates and guests are set up on a gently sloping hillside.  As a result, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house — unless you get stuck behind one of those annoying parents who won’t sit down.

The skies were threatening but the rain, thankfully, held off.  We got to see many Vassar traditions, such as the “Daisy Chain” carried in by Vassar undergrads in white dresses, which has been a commencement staple for decades, and we learned about a number of other traditions in a speech given by Vassar’s president.

In fact, all of the speakers at the commencement did a good job.  There wasn’t a real clinker in the bunch, which means that the Vassar commencement is different from every other commencement I can remember.  The main speaker — Chip Reid of CBS news, himself a Vassar grad and the first male alum to be a commencement speaker — was especially good, and struck exactly the right note with a speech that was encouraging, funny, interesting, and not overlong.  (Great job, Chip!)  And, of course, we got to see Russell cross the stage and get his diploma.

The new graduate and his proud Mom

Commencements are, of course, memorable for the graduates and their parents.  As a parent, I feel great pride and satisfaction about Russell’s accomplishment, and it was a real pleasure to meet his professors and fellow students.  But the emotions felt by parents, I think, pale in comparison to the confusing mix of emotions felt by the graduates.  There is relief at having stayed the course and happiness about your achievement, but also a certain wistfulness at realizing that your friends of the last four years will never again be so close and so close by — and, likely, trepidation about what will happen next.

Because commencements are so charged with emotion, I think the appreciation of the accomplishment may be get lost somewhat, only to be found in coming days when things have settled down.  That’s a good thing, in a way, because graduating from a fine school like Vassar College is an accomplishment to be savored.  Congratulations, Russell!

Vassar Reflections

On Sunday, Russell will receive his diploma from Vassar College.  I’m sure every parent of a graduating college student says this — but it is hard to believe that it has been four years since we first drove to the Vassar campus and, on an excruciatingly hot day, moved Russell and all of his stuff into a cramped room on one of the upper floors of Main, the oldest building on campus.

Whenever a child picks a college and then starts school, the parent holds his breath.  Will it be what he expected?  Will he make friends?  Will he get a good education?  Most importantly, will he be happy?  Or, will you get the dreaded middle-of-the-night phone call from the weeping child who says they hate the school and just want to come home?

By all of these standards, I think Vassar has been a good choice for our son.  Russell has been happy there.  He seems to have received a solid liberal arts education that has challenged him intellectually.  He has enjoyed the arts curriculum at Vassar.  His range and, I think, his confidence as an artist has grown.  He has made many good friends who hail from every corner of the country.  He learned how to play rugby and traveled with the team to Ireland.  He received an award that allowed him to spend a memorable, sweaty summer traveling throughout Vietnam and creating art in the midst of the Vietnamese people.  He participated in a number of art shows and got to organize the Vassar contribution to the Masters on Main Street exhibit.

And, when he receives his sheepskin on Sunday, he will have completed his schooling in four years and be ready to move out into the world.  It is hard to believe that that day has come so soon — but it will be an occasion worth celebrating.

So Shines A Good Deed In a Weary World

The title to this post is a quote from the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  At the end of the film, after all of the other children have been eliminated from the competition by their own appalling character flaws, only Charlie remains — but Willy Wonka refuses to give Charlie the prize because his conduct in drinking the experimental cola allegedly violated the fine print on an elaborate contract.  Grandpa Joe is outraged by this jerky behavior, but Charlie nevertheless returns to Willy Wonka a prototype everlasting gobstopper, even though Charlie has been told he could sell it to Wonka’s competitor, Slugworth, for riches untold.  When Charlie returns the candy, Willy quietly says:  “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

I was reminded of that statement by a good deed that we personally experienced this week.  Last Friday we had a graduation card for Richard (with an enclosed gift) with us when we went to the outdoor graduation ceremony, but when we returned to the hotel room afterward we couldn’t find it.  Kish was afraid we had left it on the bus in the mad scramble during the rainstorm.  Sure enough, that is exactly what happened.  Earlier this week, I received a phone call from a manager at Chicago Classic Coach, the company that operated the bus, who reported that the bus driver had found the card and its contents and turned them in.  The manager then found me on the internet, sent me an e-mail, and after verifying my identity returned the card to us by mail.

In a time when we often focus on the negatives, it is wonderful to be able to commend a company and an individual for doing a good deed.  So, I say thank you to Chicago Classic Coach and the individual bus driver who found the card.  I salute and very much appreciate your honesty and integrity!  As I said to the manager, if I ever need a private coach in Chicago in the future, Chicago Classic Coach will unquestionably get my business — and I recommend it to anyone else who may need private coach transportation in Chicago, too.

Too Wet or Too Hot?

Kish, Russell and I have made it home safely after the Northwestern graduation festivities; Richard will be home in a day or two as he enjoys the last few moments of college life.  The long drive gave us the opportunity for some additional reflection on the weekend, and two additional points seem worth making.

After Friday’s rain-soaked ceremony, Kish and I were surprised and a bit critical of the Administration’s decision to have graduation outdoors, despite the threatening weather advancing from the west.  After we attended Saturday’s Weinberg School graduation in the Welsh-Ryan Fieldhouse, however, we have a much better appreciation for the context of the Administration’s decision.   Even with only the Weinberg School graduates and their guests in attendance, the Fieldhouse was ludicrously hot on Saturday morning, with almost no air circulation save for that caused by furious (and largely ineffective) fanning of graduation programs.  It is impossible to imagine how hot it would have been if the Friday night graduation ceremony for the entire university had been moved indoors and every seat was filled with panting parents and grandparents.  Confronted with that unattractive option, the decision to go ahead and have the ceremony outdoors and hope that the weather would cooperate seems much more reasonable.

I also think attending a college graduation makes the other “graduation” ceremonies we have attended seem silly.  Our kids, like many other schoolchildren, went through “graduations” after fourth grade and eighth grade.  At the time, and even more in retrospect, the lower school and middle school “graduations” seem like foolish contrivances that cheapen the real meaning of graduation.  Perhaps those ceremonies are an outgrowth of the same suffocating, overly protective parental attitudes that require every kid who participates in an organized sport to receive a trophy, no matter how poorly they performed.  The significance of trophies have been sacrificed on the altar of general “self-esteem,” and so to an extent has the significance of graduation ceremonies.  Graduation from college is “graduation” in the literal sense — the student receives an academic degree — and also in the sense of the Latin root of the word, gradus, which means a step.  Regardless of what the graduate may go on to do, he or she has taken an irrevocable step forward into adulthood and a career.  College graduation is truly a momentous occasion, and I hope Richard and his classmates recognize its significance.  (Of course, when I graduated I didn’t.)

This link will take you to an on-line newspaper report on the NU graduation.  I’m sure that Northwestern officials appreciate that the story includes some comments from parents on the cost of a Northwestern education.

A Memorable Graduation

Richard received his diploma from Northwestern University last night, and it was a memorable evening for many reasons.  He got the job done in four years, got very good grades from a school where academic performance still means something, and contributed to the school community through his work as a radio DJ and as a columnist for the campus newspaper.  It is important to reflect on such accomplishments when graduation day comes — it is one of the reasons that the day exists.

In the future, when our family remembers the day, I think we will recall three things in particular.  First, Wynton Marsalis made a valiant attempt to provide a meaningful address to the graduates, despite looming threatening weather conditions that required the entire ceremony to be abbreviated, and I think he succeeded.  His gave the first page and last page of his prepared remarks, and still managed to deliver thoughts that were positive and well-suited to the occasion — and punctuated by a sweet little bit of trumpet work. 

Second, we didn’t manage to escape the rain and storms that rolled through Evanston all day.  The school administration made the call to have the ceremony outside at the football field, and as soon as the last speaker sat down the skies opened.  We all got soaked waiting for the shuttle buses to return us to the downtown area.  This article says the rainfall set a record for the day, and I am not surprised.  You know it was a real gullywasher when there is so much rain they have to close beaches.

Finally, we ended the night with an exceptionally good meal at Va Penzione, a restaurant we have been hearing about, and trying to dine at, for four years.  It was worth the wait.  The food was excellent, the wine was superb, and the company and conversation were wonderful.  Although we had been soaked to the skin at variouis points during the day (and will forever curse the bus driver who bypassed our shuttle bus line as we waited in monsoon-like conditions) it will be a day that Kish and I always will remember with pride.

Congratulations, Richard!