Sunday morning, I woke up to the rain. I also woke up to decisions: I hadn’t yet picked out what to wear under my graduation robes.
I had, however, decided to wear my cowboy boots, a well-worn tan and black pair with intricate stitching that I had found for four dollars at a thrift store in Gunnison, Colorado. As they would cover almost all of the visible part of my leg, the rest of my outfit didn’t matter much. I chose a skirt and a polypropylene t-shirt to ward off the rainy cold, because one of the mottos of any endurance athlete is this: cotton kills! I’d leave a dress in our locker room in Robinson Hall for later, when I’d want to look nice for pictures.
It was eerie to be so alone on this morning, when later in the day I would be flooded and overwhelmed by friends and family. I quickly ate two pieces of toast in my room, and then gathered my things and left. I wasn’t late yet, but I faced a stream of robed seniors walking to Leede Arena to line up. It seemed like I was the only one walking towards campus, pushing upstream, the wrong way.
When I opened the locker room door, the light was on. Hannah Dreissigacker was rummaging through our “costume locker” and had just pulled out the purple and blue one-piece spandex suit to wear under her gown. I can’t express how relieved I was to see her: finally, I was not alone heading into this thing called commencement.
Less than thirty minutes later, I was walking up East Wheelock Street, only twenty people behind the bagpipers. I listened to the music, breathed in the wet air, and looked around at the leafy green trees and white buildings that I knew so well. This was the only moment in the whole ceremony when I thought I might cry. The bagpipes lent an incredible air of solemnity to the proceedings. They might have been my favorite part of the whole thing.
When we reached the green and the tone changed. The bagpipers finished, and a brass band took over. As the faculty processed by us, the trumpets sounded like they could be providing music for a circus. Which, in a way, is what the ceremony was. An extremely meaningful circus. When we finally resumed the march towards our seats, I spotted my parents and grandparents and waved.
While the rest of the ceremony was not forgettable, it was predictable. Names of graduate students were read for minutes upon minutes. We gave President and Susan Wright a well-deserved standing ovation when they were awarded honorary degrees. We listened to speeches, which had high points and low points.
When it came time for the undergraduates to march up to the platform, I watched for people I knew. In a way, it made me realize exactly how many of my classmates I had never met, never talked with, and, in some cases, never even seen before. But on the other hand, it reminded me how many friends I had, and how great they were. Courtney Robinson, wearing her sparkly ski team headband over her cap just like Hannah and I were, and wearing cowboy boots like me, pumped her fist before she shook President Wright’s hand. I couldn’t help but smile. Yes, Courtney would make a scene.
When I went up on stage, Dean Carol Folt wished me the best of luck and complimented my headband. I thanked President Wright and as I walked down the steps back towards my seat, I wondered how many people in the vast audience even knew who I was. For those who did, I thought: thank you. I did it!
After singing the alma mater (I wondered if I would ever do so again), we processed out. When we reached the back of the green, that was it. It was over. We milled around, a little confused until we could find a familiar face to latch onto. This moment in time was perfectly emblematic of graduation: all of a sudden, the structure we had been following was gone.
I eventually saw my teammate Brett Palm, and we stood together until we ran into Hannah and her family, then our friend Clara Chew, then Courtney’s brother (but not Courtney). Our support systems re-emerged.
Hannah and I hurried to Robinson Hall to put on our nicer clothes. Because of the rain, we had not been handed diplomas at the ceremony, and instead they were being handed out inside “Robo”. To get to our familiar locker room, we had to wade through people, who kept telling us that we were cutting the line. We tried to assure them that all we wanted was to get to our oasis of a locker room.
Back outside, we nibbled crackers and cheese and slices of watermelon that were provided by the Outing Club. We hugged our friends and posed for picture after picture. It was difficult to assemble all twelve of the senior skiers, so we kept taking photos with slightly different groups as people came and left. I caught up with Cami Thompson and Ruff Patterson, our coaches, but in a way I didn’t even know what to say. Short phrases like “Well,” “Yeah,” and “Thank you” seemed to be all that left my mouth.
Three of my freshmen teammates had come to watch, and had made a gift for each of us: a photo from some women’s team gathering, framed in white with messages written all over. We took a picture with them, and with junior Ida Sargent, who had also come down to watch. It was great to have so many teammates around.
There were so many people I wanted to see, to hug and say goodbye to, but too soon I had to leave and return to my house in Lyme for a gathering with my family.
Because, even though graduation is about ending this stage of my life and saying goodbye to all the different parts of it, as so many people told me, it is not really about me. It’s about thanking the people that helped me through, and it’s about what they want graduation to be. I was luckiest when those two things overlapped, and what I wanted was also what my family wanted.
But it wasn’t, always. So to all the people I didn’t get to say goodbye to, goodbye. The fact that I didn’t see you doesn’t mean that I don’t care, and it doesn’t mean I won’t miss you. I hope we’ll meet again.
And to my wonderful readers, goodbye. Thanks for giving me a place in this community over the last year. I never would have guessed that so many people would actually follow my column; it has meant an incredible amount to me. Thank you. With some luck, maybe you’ll read something else of mine in the future.