Sit still and look suitably profound

Beneath the surface of this message, muted criticisms of the Bush administration’s botched war effort seemed to bubble.

by John Hoff

Four or five years of paying tuition, hitting the books, pulling all-nighters to finish papers, cramming for final exams but then – during the big graduation ceremony – the announcer mangles your name.

I saw it happen in May 2006, and it will probably happen during this year’s spring graduation, as well. At a school as big as this one, the graduation ceremony is a little bit like a cattle drive and sometimes a hand slips while holding a red-hot branding iron. Small, random moments of mortification are the inevitable result.

During last spring’s graduation, I sat on the stage with a distinguished yet somewhat random assortment of instructors and teaching assistants because some student (to my amazement) thought I had made a difference in her life in my role as an underpaid teaching assistant.

I’ve heard that senior members of the faculty prefer to avoid these ceremonies, which are an exercise in sitting perfectly still and trying to look suitably profound for, well, it seems like eight hours, but it isn’t.

But instructors with less seniority and TAs, especially, view this duty as an honor, which is how I saw it, plus free lunch.

Hey, somebody has to sit up front in robes and hats. If there weren’t volunteers there would be a draft, and things would get ugly. I couldn’t help but notice there was little order to the line of instructors, professors and a smattering of overqualified TAs already possessing one graduate degree.

After partaking of some quality cheese, lunchmeat and juice behind the stage curtain, we simply fell in line and followed unseen leaders.

There was probably some order at the beginning of the line, some kind of ranking, but in my neighborhood it was hard to tell.

One of the professors near the end of the line was a hoot. He was from England and insisted upon wearing his tassel on the opposite side, saying he had it right and our entire nation had it wrong. Somebody came down the line, reminding us to put our tassels on the so-called correct side, but when that person left, the irrepressible Mr. British Empire switched it right back with a naughty grin.

“Anarchy!” one instructor laughed, as the long and brainy line lurched forward.

When the commencement speaker took the podium, I knew the time had come to earn my pay by looking thoughtful and attentive. But the speaker’s message was actually quite good, something about how the world is not transformed by pure will but rather by understanding.

Beneath the surface of this message, muted criticisms of the Bush administration’s botched war effort seemed to bubble. How long before rage boils over, even in stately graduation ceremonies, like what happened during the 1960s? “One, two, three, four, stop this stupid (expletive) war.”

At some point, those of us sitting on the stage figured out we could chit-chat a little, as long as we maintained a dignified demeanor by discussing elements of the ceremony itself.

Observing the ceremony, it seemed like small pieces of paper were playing an incredibly large role. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would be possible for a random person to just put on a robe and join the ceremony, to even have their name read aloud, if only they could get one of those little Ö pieces Ö of paper.

Some names were mangled. One student just shook his head, as though to say, “That’s not how you say it.” Another student actually corrected the announcer, loudly.

These tiny moments are meaningful, whether we want them to be or not. One female graduate wore red high heels that were a bit too large, and I had to wonder why.

Were these her grandmother’s shoes? Had the grandmother helped put that student through college and wearing those shoes was a symbolic gesture?

Or was it one of those moments like, “Oh, no, my shoes are visible beneath the robe. I can’t go up there in my dirty sneakers.” And a friend said, “Here, we’ll switch. My shoes are a little big, but just stuff some Kleenex in the toes.”

Even such a last-minute, desperate innovation resonates beyond the moment. To have a friend who will give you the shoes off her feet, these are the things you remember and tell your children when they reach for their own University of Minnesota diplomas.

What kind of future will that be? Who can see that far through the blood and tears of present troubles? I would like to see one small problem solved in that future world, and that is the way we obtain information about how to pronounce somebody’s name.

Somewhere at this institution there are forms with such information as Social Security number, blood type and permanent address. You can look up all kinds of information about your classmates.

So why isn’t there a standard way to locate one profoundly important piece of information quite routinely: Here is the way you say this person’s name. Yes, this is how a name like “Wojciechowski” is pronounced, and a fine old name it is.

Why should the only way to obtain this information be guessing games or asking, on the first day of class, “Um, how do you say Ö umÖ?”

Graduates, as you go out into the world, remember the big picture is made up of many tiny pictures. Understanding between nations begins with understanding between individuals.

Mercy might fall like a gentle rain from heaven, but will inevitably be made up of individual raindrops. Our University’s graduation ceremony is big because the world is big.

So let your precious, individual name and identity mean a positive impact on the big wide world.

And always remember: People judge you by your shoes.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].