Graduation Day is so much cliché, so much Pomp and Circumstance that they even named the song for it. You dress your best — new tie and dad’s clip, blue dress and subtle flash of white camisole — only to cover all with a plastic table cloth from the dollar store, topping your round head with a square hat.
Speeches spew huckster optimism for a kind of life few end up living. One finds no cancer, unemployment or heartbreak in a commencement address, only encouragement that if you hang on like the proverbial poster kitty you will make it big, big, big. Introductions blubber on like a LinkedIn spill. Fully half of all speakers behave as though they just won an award and that graduates, too, might one day stand in their place, a prize nearly no one wants.
The room cooks hot and sweaty. Grandpa has gas. Everybody’s grandpa has gas. By the time the choir reaches its second African folk song, your family hopes to hear just two things: your name, and “Your table is ready” at the not-so-bad sit-down restaurant across town. Shrimp and ribs. Mom wants a salad. The classmate sitting next to you has big, hot arms like a fat dog on your lap in July.
The hands reaching for diplomas sweat and shake, chill and grip — each one a reflection of personal nervousness as varied as the prints on every fingertip. The diploma inside isn’t real. That one comes in the mail.
Afterward, pictures. Phones out, everyone stand close. Look this way and smile on three. Grandma shoots on two at random angles. Those will be the ones on her mantle.
Yes, Graduation Day. So much predictable repetition. So many reasons to scoff and wallow in the cool detachment that comes with being secretly terrified about the future.
No more school.
But there is reason for the tight pants and floral dresses, the frightened look on the face of old folks in a sharp-elbowed crowd. There is purpose for the sweaty palms and serif fonts. There is meaning in dad’s vacant expression while the band director scowls the second trumpet into tune. If this whole spectacle heaps on worn custom and familiar faces, know that you stand on top of that heap in what remains of the fresh air.
This won’t be the last time we gather. There will be younger siblings and cousins, weddings, funerals and 50th anniversaries. Sure those dress shoes pinch and no one knows how to walk in heels anymore, but your shaky feet stand on broad shoulders, all assembled today to show you that you’re the one that gets to reach just a little bit higher, to see just a little more than your parents saw.
One of the tricks our devils play is to show us what we’ve seen so far and tell us it means nothing, always more someplace else, never enough for us. Either no hope or too much to handle. Congratulations, here’s some debt. Good luck, you’re going to need it. Your flawed family bumbles around you like chain smoking planets.
What we don’t learn until later, sometimes much later, is that we can never reach the stars. We can only reach closer, closer every day until one day we have a son, a daughter, a niece, a nephew, a kid we helped along the way. And on this day we look side to side at our own shoulders and realize that if these new people only climbed up our old frame they would stand taller. They would reach even higher than we ever could, just one time. On Graduation Day. And for this we would sit through anything, even hot nonsense, though also hot lava.
On Graduation Day.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the May 31, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.