“Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully” – John Waters’ commencement speech at RISD
“We are not interested in the performance or the achievement, only to find out how we do what we do…so we can do what we want” – Moshe Feldenkrais
‘Tis the season for graduations. Consider me a graduation grinch: I have been a graduate four times and don’t recall enjoying a single occasion in its entirety or majority. That I’m smiling in many of the photographs says more about my social conditioning than about my state of mind and heart in those moments.
My first graduation was from Hebrew College which, despite the name, was an after school program I attended three days a week in my mid-teens. In those four years, I schlepped from Lexington to Brookline, MA and back again, at least 30-40 minutes each way by carpool with two boys my age. When we weren’t teasing each other, the pothole ridden journey was occasionally made more torturous by an unidentifiable and nauseating miasma that permeated one of the parent’s station wagons. Junk food, in the form of Drake’s Cakes (Hostess’ kosher counterparts), sold in the school’s cafeteria, offered sweet consolation and a respite from the challenging curriculum. Despite my huge relief to be done commuting, in a photo from the day of the ceremony my face registers an expression more akin to solemnity than ecstasy, my smile meek and shoulders hunched. I did not rock my outfit, either. Dressed in a white embroidered cotton blouse with puffed short sleeves and matching ruffled skirt, I looked like a bonnet-less, Jewish Little Bo Beep who had lost not only her sheep but also her sense of self.
My high school graduation, supposedly a highlight of every American teenager’s life, perhaps second only to getting a driver’s license or getting laid, followed two years later. Being idealistic if not delusional, I expected nothing less than an emotional climax. Yet, whoever organized it didn’t seem to notice the clouds that massed overhead long before the festivities began. In the midst of the proceedings, after I had received my diploma and smiled for the official photographer, the skies opened and 500 students and their families scurried across the athletic field into the gymnasium. The shiny yet flimsy nylon gown bled bright blue onto my skin and slate blue sun dress. I recall that, after being soaked and chilled, not everyone stuck around to watch the students toward the end of the alphabet officially graduate; the event concluded with a whimper rather than a bang. For those who struggled academically or had other challenges, graduation was probably a true milestone and cause for celebration for them and their families. Yet, instead of exhilaration and accomplishment, I experienced bewilderment at the chaotic, drenching finale and the fuss and photography (mild by the standards of the selfie era). Despite the pressure to make high school memories last “forevah”, and although I had a yearbook filled with others’ warm, handwritten wishes, I knew I wouldn’t miss the scene. While I had made good friends, I still felt adrift amidst the assorted cliques, the jocks, the druggies, the punks and the gossip. Although my graduation was a foregone conclusion, not a cliffhanger, I still imagined that it was supposed to be my special day, to be honored in my special way. Yet, in order to include my great aunt, an observant Jew, after the soggy ceremony we drove home to eat kosher cold cuts off of paper plates instead of heading to a restaurant. When I heard my parents discussing those dreary plans beforehand, I burst into tears. Pastrami was not the problem, but not being consulted stung (wasn’t I, armed with a driver’s license, an adult?). They later agreed to have brunch at a posh hotel in Boston, where porcelain plates, a full set of shiny utensils, sparkling stemware and bow tied waiters soothed my sensitive soul.
Fast forward four years to my graduation from Bryn Mawr College, for which I wore a differently unflattering white dress with short sleeves. It had a large black button at the neck; a placket concealed other buttons down the front. I don’t remember why I chose an outfit that was more corporate than collegiate to receive my degree in mathematics. Still, had I found the perfect age- and occasion-appropriate ensemble it wouldn’t have mattered. My younger brother appeared on campus with a subversively shaved head, stealing the spotlight that I, reserved introvert extraordinaire, thought I might claim for just one day. The ceremony itself was held under a sturdy weather proof tent. The commencement speaker, whose name I don’t recall, droned on and on. She left me more exhausted than electrified about the prospect of marching into the world as a newly minted graduate, ready to take on if not tackle the patriarchy. Indeed, rather than do that I ran off to Budapest.
By the time I earned a Master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins, I had figured out what to wear. I’m still surprised by how elegant I looked in a black short sleeve blouse, long black skirt with a bold white floral pattern, and red suede pumps. Even my hair cooperated, appearing sleek instead of succumbing to the humidity of Washington, DC. In one of the many photos from that day, taken with my siblings and my older brother’s wife, we all look shiny and happy, projecting competence and confidence. By then my younger brother had sprouted a full head of hair and a beard. We even went to a restaurant. Sitting at the round table, my insides twisted into a tornado of dread. I wished I had insisted that everyone stay home so that I wouldn’t have had to participate in a ritual for a degree that, along the way, had lost its meaning. Without believing I truly had a choice, I buckled down and completed my studies. In hindsight, leaving would have been the more courageous decision, no matter how many eyebrows it raised or how awkward it felt.
I don’t wish to slam all graduations. Even under ideal weather and wardrobe conditions, as an introvert who prefers intimate or in depth conversations to almost all other forms of social interaction, I generally am less enamored of large orchestrated events than the culture at large. And, I recognize the value in bringing people together to mark an occasion. For some the pomp and circumstance might cap off a meaningful experience and become a cherished memory. Yet we’ve become so accustomed to, if not expectant of, the ritual of handing a person a document to symbolize achievement that it’s been introduced to nursery schools, kindergartens and short workshops or classes. There is even a certificate for walking El Camino de Santiago (the original pilgrim, St. James, did not receive a piece of paper for his devotions). For many, calligraphed parchment has become the goal, or a means to an end, eclipsing the process of learning or self-discovery.
When so many resources, expectations and time are invested in a ceremony, or too many assumptions are bound up in credentials, it’s easy to lose sight that every day is commencement. Every moment can be a fresh beginning. Each point in time is worthy of attention, not just the finish line with parental paparazzi. Some of the most important things a human can learn or experience will not take place at a desk, in a laboratory or during accredited or supervised hours. If we’re growing, we graduate from ideas and beliefs and self-concepts we once held (for better or worse, I’m still idealistic, and I still prefer porcelain plates to paper). In those instants in which awareness or insights arise and old patterns dissolve, there probably won’t be someone there to congratulate us, shake our hands, and document our new reality. And that would be silly, because it could again change in an instant.
In this graduation season, when selected students will give speeches and most others will not, when some students will receive acclaim for exceptional grades and others, who might have struggled valiantly simply to pass, are not recognized, I’m reminded of The Art of Possibility by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander. In that book, they describe what happens when, at the beginning of the semester, Mr. Zander gives each of his students an A, “not as an expectation to live up to but a possibility to live into”. Freed from the pressure of conventional grading, which they realize is simply an invention, the students blossom. It would probably take a revolution in consciousness, plus the dissolution of vested interests and death of the old guard, for the educational system as a whole to adopt a similar approach. While I don’t expect that to happen in my lifetime, I do take solace from the commencement advice delivered by John Waters at RISD. It’s at the top of this post, but I’ll repeat it here: “Go out into the world and fuck it up beautifully.” I love that it gives permission, yet is vague enough to create endless possibility. I wonder what might happen if we all did just that.