There are lots of traditions that have persisted for a long time. They’ve been around for so long that most people don’t know how they started, and some of them don’t even make sense anymore. And yet, we still do them even when they can feel pointless. The truth is, even if the actions of these traditions don’t hold much water anymore, carrying them out sometimes helps us process the big steps we’re taking and what that means going forward.
My last day of high school (ever) was Friday, May 10. After that, if anyone would ask me if I was graduated yet, I always ended up saying yes, even though that technically wasn’t true. It felt like I had graduated. I wasn’t going to school anymore, I was enrolled at Illinois State University and starting to figure out roommate arrangements, and it really felt like I’d put high school behind me. Then, when I remembered, I would always have to clarify that I was out of school, but we hadn’t had our graduation ceremony yet.
I’ll be honest, when I first heard the term “commencement”, I didn’t realize it applied to graduation. I always just called it the graduation ceremony, because it seemed silly to make one day seem so fancy or extravagant. In the days leading up to the ceremony, I was feeling a little reluctant, and maybe a little irritated about the whole thing.
It seemed silly for us to put on gowns and goofy hats, make sure that we all had our little tassels on the same side (the left, of course), have us walk in pairs out to rows of deliberately set-up chairs so that we could listen to people make speeches and stand up when our name is called. All that so we could walk across the front and receive a little piece of paper that definitely would have fit in the mailbox.
And yet, when I was actually in the ceremony, hearing the speeches written by our valedictorian and salutatorian, when we received the statement of certification from our superintendent, and when I heard my name called and walked across that stage to shake hands with the president of the board and be handed that piece of paper, I understood why it was actually all worth it.
This is a huge step in our lives, it is an important accomplishment we just made, and no matter where any of us are going we’ve all made major choices about where we want to go from here. The ceremony, like any old-fashioned tradition that has still stuck around, just helps us to understand the gravity of it. Graduating high school was an accomplishment and a milestone a hundred years ago, and it will still be that way a hundred years from now.
It occurred to me that the term “commencement” means “a beginning or start” in addition to being the name of the graduation ceremony. At graduation, we do look back and reflect on where we’ve been. Both of the student speeches I listened to contained inside jokes about teachers and funny stories about fellow students. But the most important thing is when we reflect on where we are going from here. After this, it will be the first time for many of us that our path isn’t laid out like a brick road before us. We always had to go to kindergarten, and then elementary school, and on through middle school and high school. Every year there was a “next” already chosen. But this year is different.
This year some of us will be heading to college. Some of us will be joining the workforce already, ready to start new lives and start working their way up the ladder. Some will be joining the military. For the first time, we can really decide how we want to proceed from here, and we can really start living our own lives and reaping our own consequences.
From here on out, life is a lot more real. That’s something that should be recognized, even if it is through an aged ceremony with funny looking hats. If nothing else, commencement allows us the time to reflect on everything it took to get here, to finally be looking out at everywhere we could end up for the rest of our lives. It gives us time to close the door on this chapter of our lives and step fully into the new one. As much as we looked at commencement as the “end of our high school experience”, it was, maybe more importantly, the beginning of everything else.
See you next week!