Graduation Day


graduation-picAs I walk up the steps in front of the few hundred guests and students, I am giving myself two orders over and over again:

Look austere. Don’t fall down.

Look austere. Don’t fall down.

Look austere. Don’t fall down.

Graduation robes are not made for short people. They are long and awkward. So while my hands are folded in front of me in a pose of academic integrity, they are really holding the robe up above my shoes. I am wearing a huge beret-like cap that belongs on Venetian merchant travelers who have water sports named after them.

Looking austere is not difficult. To look austere, one must appear to be unaffected, unimpressed, and intensely meditating a crime against humanity. Or math. Whatever the face, smiles don’t seem to be accepted academic fashion, and so I consider the plight of the Hopi Indians and step slowly.

It’s graduation day. I have been asked to represent the foreign languages department. It’s raining. I would bite the head off a live block of tofu to be in bed reading, but instead I dress as Dumbledore and tell myself not to fall down and to look austere.

When you are a faculty member with a non-speaking role at a graduation ceremony, you have a lot of time and nothing to do, so I sit in the top row and make myself comfy. As the show begins, two hundred people in the crowd hold up mobile phones and (presumably) take pictures. As the graduates are introduced, it’s clear (to me, at least) that most of them have been giving themselves the same advice as me. Look austere.

Nobody smiles.

I see three students I know. Each smiled at me as I was introduced in a moment of bated breath (as Mr. Lord Galeone, which is an address I will force on all of my friends). I am suddenly horrified that one of them might find me afterwards and ask for advice. Looking austere and being austere are two different things. I make a plan to hide.

There’s a drop of envy, I’ll admit. To be twenty-three again and just setting out into the world with nothing but a bachelor’s degree, a wide-eyed perspective, and a boatload of confidence and self-assuredness that is about to be blasted out of the water like the Lusitania.

That’s when I stop being envious and start being relieved. It was hard to be a recent grad. There were so many questions, so little real knowledge. Everything seemed unfair. Being in my early twenties was nice.  I could go from out of shape to in shape in the matter of a week. I could eat pizza with no fear of heartburn. Back pain was a thing for my elders. I didn’t groan when getting off the couch. But still, I would just as soon the doctor performed my next prostate exam with a shovel than go back to being a fresh grad.

In danger of analyzing my life choices, I make a sharp turn into optimism. I think about the benefits of being established in a profession and a field. I love my work and my subject. I have a good level of real knowledge. Also, I get to wear Hogwarts robes on occasion and look austere. I compare my current personality with my early twenties one. I’m mellower. I’m nicer. I have actual confidence now. I let things bother me less. I treat people better than I did then.

If you had asked the Early Twenties Me where I’d like to be in twenty years, I would have described something like what is happening right here. Teaching English and writing at a European university, writing books and stories. But the road to here, wherever here is, has not been one that recent grads want to think they will take. Nobody sits down and plans a road map to life that is filled with mistakes and fuck ups, troubles, risks, and uncertainty. But that is exactly what the road to here has been filled with. Mistakes. Fuck ups. Risks. It is also the reason I am here. And I would not change it or here for anything in the world.

If the Early Twenties Me was at this graduation as a student rather than faculty and came up to my Early Forties Me afterwards and asked for some advice, what would I say? In the first place, Early Twenties Me would be blown away by the fact that we are part of the Austere Looking Faculty at a graduation. I wasn’t so great at college the first time around, so ETM would have to come to grips with the idea that I didn’t make that ineptitude a lifelong habit.

And then, I would dispense this advice to him:

Fuck austerity. Fall down a lot. And eat a lot of pizza now.

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