Graduation 2010


In the Library

It was a few days before graduation, and I was dreading the festivities. I had enjoyed my time at the Kennedy School, felt satisfied, and just wanted to end the year in my own way. I didn’t want to march hither and yon, sit in a big throng of gowned students, be part of a gaggle. I didn’t want to hear a fresh infusion of the “Can you believe we’re at Harvard!” talk that had cropped up throughout the year among us mid-career students. Sometimes these exclamations reflected genuine wonderment, other times they seemed a pretext for patting ourselves on the back. Surely, I reasoned, graduation would bring out the stinkiest strains of this enthusiasm. If I was going to get puffed up, I wanted to do it in private.

I thought that a stroll in the Yard, as the original Harvard campus is known, might help my attitude. But when I entered the bricky enclave of the old college, it was a shock to see 10 foot banners festooning porticos and strategically placed trees, each emblazed with the school motto:  “Veritas.” This barrage of the Harvard brand, which seemed fundamentally at odds with actual truth seeking, did nothing to remove my dour frame of mind. A friend remarked about the fascist display. Strictly speaking, the banners were burgundy, not bright red, but their trumpeting of truth without actually telling it did give off a disquieting, All Hail quiver. As I walked among the rows of folding chairs and roped off sections of lawn, I could hardly believe that I would be experiencing a rite of passage there in a few days. Well, I told myself, I would attend, but I wouldn’t give myself over to any collective delirium.

Then I decided to go inside Widener Library, from whose massive columns even larger “Veritas” banners were flapping. My ID was expiring soon, and I only had a few more days of access to the stacks. I slid my ID through the scanner and walked down the marble hall, turning left into the checkout room. Past the desk a bored looking work study student checked my ID again, and I was allowed into a nondescript elevator and stairway entrance. Plain as it appeared, this entryway made me do an inner prance, because it was a launch point into a world I’d never seen before Harvard:  multiple floors deep in the ground whose only purpose was to contain three million books, almost any of which I could bring home. Best of all, my literary delectation could take place in solitude. I seldom saw anyone on these floors, and when I did, my fellow browser and I instinctively ducked our heads and avoided contact.

I ran down a few flights at random and opened the door to a huge dark room, kept noticeably cool. The only things to be seen were bookcases, uniformly shaped and immaculately filled. As I walked in, sensors tracked my steps and lights came on one after the other—thwack, thwack, thwack. The room’s automated gesture of welcome always felt gracious and like an excellent use of the many thousands of dollars I had contributed to the Harvard coffers.
The pages of each book I pulled were white and dustless. If fragile, the book was encased in a hard cover and bound with an elastic cord. I could pull open the cover and carefully turn the oniony pages, then seal the book up for the next peruser. That particular floor contained Charles Darwin’s letters and musings on an array of subjects, although I could not immediately find a copy of his tome, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould,” which I, a fan of worms, had in paperback. Surely that treatise was in here somewhere. I searched for a while and then became distracted by an art book on Spanish painters. The book was too big to lug home, so I read it on the stairs in satisfying seclusion.

A few weeks earlier I had been on that same floor and had found and brought home a copy of Sonnets from the Portugese. Published in 1902, it was small, with gilt edged pages and art deco illustrations. A frontispiece notation marked it as the former property of a New England lady, who had donated it from her personal library. It was well worn, but no one but me had checked it out since 1973, so presumably its owner had cherished it. The physical book itself gave me pleasure—its curvy, pastel drawings, the thick yet delicate pages. I also found that reading its poems aloud at odd times of day calmed me down when I was feeling nervous about exams.

I especially loved Sonnet Number 29. It described how Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s thoughts about her beloved encased the living man in a strangling mental shrubbery, twinings that she exhorts him to lay bare, so that she might encounter him more clearly. I had covered lovers with such shrubbery many times. How easy—to cloak confounding realities with a mental cast that leaches their aliveness. The sonnet both explored that instinct and offered a braver alternative. Often, just before turning off my bedside lamp for the night, I would take a last look at Number 29 and feel new possibilities stirring.

Now, back in the library after my unsatisfying walk in the Yard, staring at the spot on the shelves where I had found the book of sonnets weeks before, I felt that stirring again. At the same time, an unpleasant truth had to be faced:  the book was in my bag, but it wasn’t mine. Even worse, the library wanted it back. My access to this building was contingent on being a paying student, and that time was up. I didn’t want to return the book. Sure, I could buy my own copy of the sonnets, even a quaintly used one, but it wouldn’t be the same. I wanted this book in particular, this package of color, history, and words, the very one that had taught me so much. Why, I wondered, should my bond with this little volume be subject to some external system of rules? Once returned to Widener, the book might not be pulled from its shelf for another 30 years. Why shouldn’t I keep it forever?

I stood looking up at the bookshelf for a good while. Some of the lights further down the room turned themselves off, and soon I was standing in a comfortable semi-darkness. Just me and the books. But was that really the case? Someone could be on their way down here this very minute and wouldn’t that be a good thing? Wasn’t it good to hope that potential sonnet lovers were born every day and that this beautiful book might be the medium for helping one or two of them learn a new response to love, as I had done? Wasn’t the library a place dedicated to the catalytic experience that words and pictures could have on people, unknown people, whose potential for unfolding the building’s founders had taken on faith? And who were we lurkers in the library but people bound by a common experience of needing to be around books? My borrowed copy of the sonnets had been passed from hand to hand, with the occasional hiatus, and it was now imbued with the spirit of all of us who had held it, stared at it, set it down with a sigh or a thump.

Harvard had dedicated millions of dollars to encourage this shared experience of literary savoring, from the care of the volumes to the stern email warnings I had already received about returning the book on time. My curmudgeonly attitude toward the school began to soften. What could be more veritas fostering than Widener Library? Maybe the building deserved to fly those obnoxious banners after all. I left the cool room, remounted the stairs, and handed the book of sonnets over the counter. I watched it being borne away on a cart and didn’t feel so bad.

In the Street

Graduation day arrived, and, library epiphany or not, I retained a core resistance to the occasion. My loner instinct seemed endlessly vital; the more the ceremony was framed as one to be experienced as a group, the more I braced against it. I was, however, unprepared for just how much a Harvard graduation has in common with Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans. I was to remember the lessons I had learned from 20 years of carnival in the Big Easy:  I could start out all stiff and solo, mascara properly plumped, costume adroitly layered—a carefully cultivated expression of me-ness. But the day always worked me over, spread me into one big communal baking pan, and cooked me in a slew of experiences from which I emerged smudged and tattered, yet sweeter and more properly in tune with the fellow feeling that underlies an unfettered mammalian nature.

The early start provided the first clue that I was on familiar ground. My school had asked us to gather at 7:00AM; there were pictures to take, processions to take part in. Mardi Gras Day has a similar timetable. My husband, normally a late sleeper, springs from our bed at 6 AM on Fat Tuesday and begins an ambitious dressing routine involving lace gloves, pearl necklaces, a Venetian frock coat with jabot, and for a few years, a Hawaiian grass skirt that left a trail of fiber from our house to the French Quarter. He obeyed an unspoken but undeniable call to hit the streets by sunup. The ethos was plain:  you will not fit this event into your day, Mardi Gras is your day; so surrender, dress yourself, and get out the door early. I dallied on those mornings, having not laid out my costume the night before and being reluctant to go with the communal current. But even I would eventually rise to the occasion and be glad I did.

In the same way, I found myself surrendering to the graduation ceremony—up before dawn, stepping carefully around my sleeping family, getting into my costume, which was, like most Mardi Gras get ups, cheesy and provisional. I donned a black scratchy gown and a pinkish stole, which the school had termed “regalia” when renting them for $80. The garments came wadded up in a plastic bag along with a notice warning that the gown material would bleed black dye if rained on. Very carnivale, to use low grade materials for a high grade purpose imbued with cultural power. I had donned variations of regalia countless times for Mardi Gras—tutus and boas and coin belts pulled out of a box all crumpled, but once assembled, giving the celebratory aura that the day demanded.

The mask is all important to Mardi Gras costuming; disguising one’s identity and adopting an unpredictable persona being one of the day’s great pleasures and obligations. My mask was covered in peacock feathers and hid my entire face, allowing delicious relief from being identified for a day. In its own way, the mortarboard filled this role as well, being the final, silly looking, and essential accessory that stamped me not as myself, but as a graduate, one of many and special all the same. I pulled it on; the cheap elastic border came down my forehead in a point. The cap felt solid up there though, as if it belonged on my head. With the tassle bobbing around my cheek and my black fabric widow’s peak firmly in place, I felt ready to join the gang.

The process continued when I left my apartment. On the streets in Cambridge there was a proportion of one gowned graduate to four spectators with cameras. Roughly the same proportion holds true during Mardi Gras. The feeling of being on display while partaking in an important ceremony gave those of us in gowns the same kind of self-consciousness as carnival maskers who stop into the drugstore for a Chapstick. They preen a little, accept attention casually, and stick to the business at hand, all the while pitying those who aren’t also dressed as unicorns.

The early drinking struck another familiar chord. It was just after dawn as I walked to school, but people were swigging from bottles on street corners everywhere I looked. This, in a place that arrested picnickers on the Boston Common for drinking wine with their well chosen cheese. There was music too. A bagpiper’s wail had punctuated the dawn hours, and other bands were warming up, preparing to escort various classes through the streets to the morning ceremony. My stride became looser limbed, and I began to hope that the day might turn out all right. I loosened up still more as the morning wore on and my classmates and I paraded to Harvard Yard accompanied by our bagpiper. People were hanging out of windows and doors, clapping and cheering us on. Walking along, part of a jovial, high stepping crowd while people hooted and laughed all around us—the feeling was unmistakable. It was Cambridge’s carnival day, the day toward which a year’s worth of living flowed.

And just as on Mardi Gras Day, I was shocked, shocked, when the day whiplashed on me. How many times on Fat Tuesday, after a glowing start, had tears trickled behind my mask as I wended my way along some grubby, reveler packed street? The inciting incident was always hard to predict—an unduly harsh word heard somewhere, a deflating situation—the line between high spirits and depressingly forced merriment being quite fine, one could never be sure when the butterfly mood would be crushed. And having taken license to feel on a larger scale than usual, the reversals always packed an outsized punch. But here’s the funny thing. The day would rebound every time. I would end up at 10 o’clock at night laughing with my comrades and eating pie at the Camellia Grill. Or footsore and cranky, we’d go to a party where the host, dressed as the Pope, would help our daughter throw confetti from the balcony onto a crowd of madly kissing men below.

The same sine wave was in effect on graduation day. I was floating higher and higher, walking along and laughing my head off as a friend riffed on the absurdity of the petite, plastic blow up globes that we had each been given before the formal ceremony, ours to wave with madcap school spirit whenever a speaker mentioned our degree program. The globes were so old that their depiction of African nations was out of date. Yes, it was perfect that our always thrifty school had given us expired party favors, probably bought in bulk many years before. How chilling it would have been if the globes had been efficiently up to the minute. My globe was already losing air and getting baggy; I had bopped it on my head too many times. All was well. No, more than well, all was wonderful.

A few minutes later, I soared even higher, walking down a rope line toward a giant white tent where my fellow students and I would receive our diplomas. Family members and well wishers were snapping pictures, blowing us kisses—I couldn’t believe how uplifting it all was. I had thought rope lines were vapid, but when you were on the celebrity side of them they were fun! A friend’s father snapped my picture, and I smiled at him as if he were my long lost uncle.

“Hey, was that your dad?” the student in front of me asked. The question pierced me to the core. My dad, dead for 28 years, was not there to see me graduate, as he had not been there for the birth of my daughter, my marriage, or any other milestone in my life since I was 17. I gasped with the sudden pain of it, and felt a grief wave sucking me in. Just then, our line entered the mighty white tent. Awaiting us was another touching sight: Kennedy School professors lined up on either side of our procession, shaking our hands, hugging us, wishing us well as we prepared to take our learning out into the world. They were all decked out in color saturated doctoral robes, their scholarly heads sporting improbably puffy hats. The intensity of simultaneous pain and pleasure mashed my chest. I felt a howl arising, but there was no feathery carnival mask to give me cover.

Credit the force of social pressure that I oozed only a tear or two. But the feeling was still there, waiting its moment. One by one, the students I’d seen all year were walking up and getting their degrees. There was wild clapping and shouting; someone in the back of the crowd managed a high pitched yelp each time a new graduate mounted the stage. Then it was my turn. Up on the stage I heard a call and saw my eight year old daughter and husband standing on their chairs and waving, beaming with pride and excitement. Another piercing moment gushed into my already overflowing cup. Then I was shaking hands and accepting a diploma, having my picture taken. Not surprisingly, the photo came out looking odd, as if my eyes were pointing in two directions at once.

Events kept speeding up. I couldn’t find my family after the ceremony, and when I did, I got mad at my husband for getting mad at my daughter for getting mad at him when she couldn’t find me. One very strained lunch later and I was ready to pop. Instead I took my diploma out of its envelope and received another blow. The certificate looked just like my father’s father’s Harvard Law School diploma—the same wiggly old fashioned font, the same spacing of lines on the page. My grandfather was a troubled man whose turmoil brought much pain to his family. He had died long before I was born, and aside from some photos and letters, the Harvard diploma was the only tangible mark of his life that I had ever seen. It hung in my parent’s bedroom, and as a child I used to look at it and wonder about the source of all those scary stories. Now I had one of those diplomas myself. Did it represent my pinnacle achievement, as it had for my grandfather? Was it all downhill from here? Or had I managed to change an old family trajectory in a way that my father would never witness? Another howl formed in my chest. I stuck the diploma back in the envelope and made a beeline back to my apartment.

Thank God for bathrooms, lockable, impregnable bathrooms. I went in and had an eye swelling cry. Then my husband and I talked for a good while, and our family ship righted itself, with much pressing of lips to lips. We were all exhausted, wrung out, and stumbling, but the day wasn’t over yet. Graduation Day, like Mardi Gras, lasts longer than typical powers of endurance. So it was with little surprise that I found myself out again at 10PM, my face froglike, my hair dreary and lank after being mashed under the cap all day. I hadn’t changed out of my low grade under-the-graduation gown-that-might-leak outfit. I was going out to dance, far fetched as that seemed. My husband, sensing I needed a change of scene and probably needing a break from togetherness himself, had encouraged me to have one more blowout with my pals. He would stay home with our daughter so I wouldn’t have to miss the gaiety.

Feeling anything but gay, I slumped in, sat down at a table in the corner, and looked at my friends dancing. One classmate, a woman from Israel, had changed into a glimmering, grey strapless jumpsuit; it looked great on her as she trotted and spun. Seeing her loveliness flattened my spirits even more. The same anemic anthems I’d heard all year were blasting through the room, and I found myself cantankerously longing for the music of my youth. What was I doing there? I should be home brushing my teeth.

Just as I was about to slip away unnoticed, the turnaround moment arrived. Out of nowhere, a young man appeared in front of me and extended his hand. In a room full of men in cargo shorts he stood out, dressed as he was in bright red polyester from head to toe—tight fitting pants and matching muscle shirt—all clinging to him with sweat. His blond sketchy hair stood up straight on his head, his eyes bugged, and his big white teeth gleamed. The hand he offered was wet but absolutely firm. I took it without hesitation, and everything changed. Once in his wiry, damp arms, he began dancing the life back into me, twirling me around eight times in a row, then dipping me back, throwing me up in the air. When he set me down, we began doing extravagant dance moves. Suddenly he would bob down to the ground and do a crouching spin, then shoot up again with a twirl. Being at least 20 years older, I took it easier but tried to hold up my end, moving my arms like writhing snakes and doing figure eights with my hips.

My classmates were shooting me puzzled looks, and it was puzzling. Where had this guy come from and why had he come for me? At one point, everyone formed a circle around us, gawking and clapping. Who cared? I was back on solid ground, dancing with a man disguised as a red angel. Or was he an angel disguised as a man? It was a carnival kind of question, better posed than answered. “Amy finally found her soul mate,” someone remarked, as I whirled by, laughing, with hair in my face. Eventually the angel moved on to bring joy to others, but when I walked home at 2AM I had that well lived feeling deep in my muscles. The day had mixed me up, melted me, baked me in a pan under high heat, and I had turned out just fine.

In the Frame

The next day my husband, daughter, and I went to the rooming house where my grandfather had lived during his time at Harvard. He and my grandmother had started a family there, while he went to law school and sold Maytag washing machines to make ends meet. Their letters from this time are funny, full of domestic details, and underlain by a feeling that good things were on the way. The house was big and white with green shutters, set smack in the middle of the Radcliffe campus. We hung around outside the house for a while, speaking of my grandfather, the mystery of him, the promise that his time in Cambridge seemed to hold, the ways that promise slipped away. My daughter said she was bored, but she lingered nearby with her ears cocked, asking the occasional question. As we walked home, the grief I had felt the day before subsided. Part of my family history was in that house, I was making more, and my family was beside me, as they had been all along.

My husband and daughter had stayed behind in New Orleans while I had my yearlong Harvard adventure. The idea was that I could wallow more completely in the round the clock seminars, studies, and socializing that the year offered if I did not have to worry about family responsibilities. It turned out to be true. Being on my own allowed me to live near school and stay in student mode all the time. Without my husband and daughter’s willingness to do without me, I would never have managed to wring so much juice out of the year. But instead of making them absent, their generous allowance had made them acutely present during my time in Cambridge. When I stayed up late having dinner with friends or lounged on my bed eating tortilla chips for breakfast, I felt their gift to me. It wasn’t guilt, more an awareness of my obligation to fully imbibe the experience they had made possible.

A few weeks later I was back in New Orleans. It was my 46th birthday, and I was sitting at the kitchen table reading. Then my husband asked me to close my eyes. When I opened them, he revealed an exquisite picture frame that he had made in secret. It was his version of New England colonial:  flamboyant curly maple wood, perfectly matched at the corners, with beads and border gilded in 24 carat gold. When I turned it around and looked at the back, I could see seams like those on a handmade dress. “It’s for your diploma,” he said. “And before you say that you hate putting stuff like that up on the wall, remember, we all worked hard for that piece of paper. It deserves to be seen.”

The diploma might touch on an old family sorrow, but it also commemorated a composting of that sorrow into something new. It might have my name on it, but it represented a family achievement. I hung it on the wall. When my daughter happens to looks at it, she will have her own memories to bring to the encounter: the year with her dad, the big white tent, the crying in the bathroom, the kissing afterwards, and how she was part of it all.