Yesterday was commencement at Carthage College- that momentous occasion where diplomas are bestowed and the new graduates are invited to switch their tassels from the left side to the right side. Or is it from the right side to the left side? I honestly don’t remember, and whenever I am lined up with my faculty colleagues and ready to process in, I have to look at the person I’m standing next to in order to put my tassel on the proper side. I’ve been processing with the faculty for fourteen years now, so you would think I would have this little detail worked out by now, but I don’t. I guess I have too much other important data in my brain such as the chronological order of all 79 classic Star Trek episodes, the order and precise terms of office of the 44 U.S. presidents, the title of every role sung by Joan Sutherland at the Metropolitan Opera, and every word of dialogue of my favorite Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes. With all that to remember, who can bother to memorize proper placement of tassels?
Of course, it’s not really a day about tassels. It’s a day to say congratulations and bon voyage to several hundred young people who have run a challenging gauntlet and are about to take on another one. And usually there are some very hard goodbyes that are mixed in with the joy and excitement. One of the strangest things about the farewells is that in some cases you’re saying goodbye to some students that will be back again and again or who will otherwise remain in close contact for years to come. And others will disappear forever, as if whisked to another galaxy via some strange and powerful device that only they know about. What’s odd is that sometimes the list of students in those two columns will be quite surprising- certain ones you thought would remain close and interested vanish into thin air, while others who seem desperately eager to get out of there as soon as possible find themselves drawn back again and again. It’s just one more demonstration of how life’s script tends not to play out the way we expected it would.
There’s one thing I would change about Carthage’s commencement ceremony . . . and that’s the way it ends – in chaos. The platform party exits, the faculty exits, the graduates exit (which of course is perfectly orderly) but once you walk through the doorway to the outside, everybody scatters every which way and it becomes utterly impossible to find anyone to whom you might want to say a final goodbye. Most faculty appear not to even try – and those of us who do stick around end up picking our way through a sea of humanity, looking in vain for a single familiar face. (This is the one moment of the whole school year when Carthage suddenly doesn’t seem like such a small, intimate place.) Luther does it differently- and so does the school where Peter Dennee most recently taught: there, the faculty exits, and then forms a double greeting line, so that when the graduates first step outside, they are walking through a double line of cheering faculty. At Luther this was a well-kept secret and a wonderful surprise – and it was a way to finish off the ceremony with a little more sense of emotional closure. I’ve made the suggestion a time or two already, and haven’t yet given up.
Some highlights: The video which was shown was especially well done. The framework of it was a spoof of Entertainment Tonight, with someone interviewing various Carthage seniors as though they were celebrities walking the proverbial Red Carpet, interspersed with more standard and serious interviews. It was quite well done, and at the end, the cameras seemed to usher us right through the doors of the Tarble Center- and the next thing you knew, we were seeing a live shot from commencement itself – with the hostess now garbed in her own graduation gown to issue the closer. It was very cool. . . even if a little too much air time was devoted to sports at the expense of the arts. (Sports got its own section, this time- which I wouldn’t mind if there were also a section devoted to music/theater/visual arts. But no such luck.)
The day is mostly about the graduating seniors, but others are honored as well . . . including, this year, Erno Dahl, who was president of Carthage when I first moved to Kenosha in 1986. (He resigned a few months later.) He has suffered from severe diabetes and is now confined to a wheelchair – having lost both legs – so he could not have been a more striking contrast to the typical graduating senior – but there he was, drinking in all the excitement of the day and, I’m sure, amazed at how far Carthage has come in the last 23 years. (For one thing, student enrollment has nearly quadrupled from its mid-80’s nadir. And the last 23 years has seen the construction of the Hedburg Library, Tarble Athletic Center, and the Oaks Towers – and the Straz Science Building was extensively renovated.) I remember meeting him shortly after I moved to Kenosha, and he struck me as a very sweet gentleman.
This year, I sat next to my music colleague Jane Livingston, who is the head of our piano program. Commencement was extraordinarily meaningful for her because her oldest daughter, Heather, graduated with a double major in biology and chemistry. . . and Jane was invited to sneak up to the backstage area and then step on to the platform and next to President Campbell in time to hand Heather her diploma. How amazing would that feel?!? She was practically jumping out of her skin with nervousness about that, but it worked out just fine and mother and daughter ended up with their little Hallmark moment.
For the first time ever, I brought a book along to read during the commencement ceremony- having seen other professors doing it. (A colleague sitting two seats away from me was reading Shakespeare yesterday.) So I brought “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the birth of the FBI 1933-1934,” which I have to read for a WGTD interview later this week. (This book is the basis for the Johnny Depp film coming out this summer.) But as it turns out, I didn’t read a word of it! I was too caught up in the ceremony. . . and also I was sitting three seats off of the aisle where the seniors stood in line on their way to the platform. I realized that if a senior I cared about saw me reading a book during this hugely momentous day, it might seem disrespectful. So the book remained closed – and next year, the book will remain in my backpack, where it belongs.
pictured above: the seniors stand to receive the ovation of the audience after having received their diplomas. The man in the bright crimson robe is my colleague and office neighbor Dimitri Shapovalov- our music history professor. Next to him is another music colleague, Mark Petering (a fellow Luther grad) who is one of our theory teachers and our resident composer.