When Saturday dawned, though I’d slept poorly from nerves, I was honestly more anxious and emotional about my friends’ graduations than my own. I was proud of them, and excited for them, and a little bit sad, but my own arrival at this academic pinnacle didn’t quite seem real. I got up early to see the Southern Belle and the Commodore (who carried the gonfalon!) at the 8 a.m. ceremony. I teared up several times, and I clapped and cheered wildly when my two best friends walked across the stage to receive their diploma
covers, and I took many blurry, zoomed-in pictures from my faraway seat because I was determined to capture the moment.
I met up with the Engineer and his family, who were in town for his brother’s graduation (having earned a master’s degree) at the next ceremony. I walked back to my apartment in the sun, meeting soon-to-be graduates in their regalia going the other way, and I still couldn’t quite think, “Me too. I’m graduating.”
For most of the day, Bird and I read quietly at my apartment, with brief flurries of activity when the Commodore’s and my own family descended for visits and hellos between events. Rather than wrapping my head around my own reality, I escaped into the adventures of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (highly recommended, by the way).
Then it was time to start getting ready. Rented gown, a stolen stole (borrowed from the Commodore, signifying that I had studied abroad; I didn’t get my own because I never bothered to get my Fancy Summer Institute in Nottingham credits transferred to my own university), honors cords for my major, honors cords for a national honors society, a medallion from the Honors college, and the rented yoke. Cap pinned in place (I had finally decided on a C.S. Lewis quote the day before – appropriately, the Commodore’s hat featured a J.R.R. Tolkien quote…in Elvish). Tassel draped to the right.
Dad drove us to the coliseum and dropped us off, where I headed in through the behind-the-scenes passageway because I was carrying the Honors gonfalon. What exactly is a gonfalon, you may ask? Basically, it’s a banner. A flag.
The standard behind which I will amass my armies as we ride forth into battle. By virtue of my carrying this 10-foot-tall piece of fabric on a stick, my family was seated in the VIP section. Bird, Mom, and my cousin all took pictures when they spotted me standing in the back. I looked around the coliseum, all decked out in university colors, and took pictures with the deans in their regalia as my co-gonfalonier and I stood next to our banners.
When the band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Engineer caught my eye and made a swimming turtle with his hands. “My turtle swims sideways, your turtle swims upside down…” were the lyrics he and his brothers sang to the graduation march. Naturally it was stuck in my head all day.
Once all the other graduates had filed in, we hoisted the gonfalons overhead and strode down the center aisle. I had expected, seeing as it was the whole College of Arts and Sciences graduating, that I would barely know anyone in the graduating class. Instead, my friends and coworkers shouted out to me as I walked by with the gonfalon. They made me smile, a realer smile than the one I had directed at the cameras lining the aisle.
The ceremony proceeded apace, with speakers and applause and occasional technical difficulties. We gonfaloniers stood to be recognized and tried not to smile too awkwardly while the cameras stayed on us. Eventually, an usher pulled us out of the front row to join our respective groups, and I squeezed in between two of my friends from English.
Had my picture taken with the prop diploma cover. Handed my name card to the announcer. Smiled into the camera as he said my (thankfully phonetically simple) name. Walked forward. Shook with my right hand, took the diploma cover with the left. Walked across to the center. Shook hands with the university president, who wished me luck. Slipped out of the receiving line to return to my front row seat. Smiled and posed for the Commodore, who had gotten a great seat and was snapping pictures.
When I got back to my seat, I held the diploma cover in my lap. Never mind that it was empty, that I will get the real thing in the mail a few weeks from now. All of a sudden it hit me. College was over. I did the Thing, the Accomplishment toward which roughly three quarters of my life had been aimed. It was finished. All done.
When I took this picture, I stepped up onto a cement barrier (in heels, no less). Looking out over the campus, I had no visual cues to reassure me. It seemed as though I were at the immediate edge of a cliff, even though the drop to the flowerbed below was no more than a foot and a half. Logically, I knew I was safe. Irrationally, I felt like I was about to fall.
But for a moment, buried in the jolt of fear, it was exhilarating.
This feeling returned as I looked down at the crimson rectangle in my hands. But I couldn’t cry, not really, not in the front row, not as several hundred others made their way across the stage. So I smiled, blinked away the welling emotions, and looked around for the friends I knew would be coming up in line.
Stood back up. Moved the tassel. Cheered as the confetti rained down. Slipped a few pieces into the diploma cover, hoping my bittersweet tears wouldn’t dissolve it later.