What could be more special than watching your child’s college graduation? Answer: Watching your child graduate from the same school where you received your diploma 35 years earlier.
Max’s May 26th graduation from “our” alma mater was the ultimate déjà vu. Like me, my son received his diploma at the outdoor theater at 10:00 AM, amid magnificent, ancient trees and close to a lovely lake. Just as I remembered, the ceremony was preceded by young women in white, carrying the traditional “daisy chain.” Unlike when I graduated in 1978, there were also “African violets,” to reflect the beauty and diversity of the 21st century student body.
Back in 1978, Shirley Chisholm was the commencement speaker at my graduation and this year Kirsten Gillibrand spoke at Max’s. My son and I both felt alienated by our commencement speakers for different reasons. I remember feeling that Chisholm’s speech was an indictment of what she viewed as our mostly white, over-privileged student population. As a result of the unfairness and racism she had experienced in her life, Shirley Chisholm believed our graduating class of ’78 had the moral obligation to devote our lives to fighting inequality. During the commencement speech, my mind drifted away from Chisholm’s single-minded focus. Where were the congratulations? Wasn’t this graduation the culmination of many students’ hard work? What about acknowledging the financial, academic and emotional struggles that many of us had managed to overcome—even though we were not considered part of a minority group? Going out into the world for the first time as a young adult looking to find meaningful work after a lifetime of being a student was and always will be a daunting proposition. Where was the welcoming embrace of our elders? Didn’t we students deserve some encouragement and reassurance about the future we would soon face?
I didn’t feel encouraged or understood by Shirley Chisholm, and my son didn’t feel any emotional connection with Kirsten Gillibrand. At Max’s graduation, Senator Gillibrand focused mainly on the economic inequality of women today, despite all the improvements since her grandma was a secretary. As a woman, I found her speech interesting and inspiring, especially when she applauded the activism and accomplishments of Max’s generation Y, suggesting they should be called the “Y not” generation. However, Max, along with many of his male friends, felt like they were invisible.
“Our college is 45% male,” my son reminded me. “I felt like Gillibrand wasn’t even talking to us… It’s as though she didn’t see us sitting in the audience.”
I guess politicians always have their agendas, and graduating seniors will always hope to hear something personally uplifting.
Other than the speakers and the campus setting, everything else about Max’s graduation and mine was completely different. The weather at my graduation was a humid and scorching 90 degrees under a blazing sun. At Max’s graduation, the weather felt like late fall, with temperatures in the 50s. Gusts of wind that sounded like thunder blew against the microphones, and I had to wear a down jacket over my sun dress. Graduation in 1978 had been a simple one-day affair. My parents and my grandmother drove up in the morning; after the ceremony, we loaded the car and went home. Max’s graduation was preceded by a week of festivities, including a cruise, a prom and streaking nude through the library and around the lake, and, of course, wild parties.
In 2013, only Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane drove up Sunday morning just for graduation. Uncle Andy arrived two days early to take Max and a friend out to dinner. My husband Henry, my daughter Sarah, my mother and I arrived the day before graduation, in time to see the screening of Max’s wonderful documentary, “Fifteen Minutes of Name.” My son’s film is about a local celebrity, Billy Name, a photographer and former Andy Warhol lover, who had been in charge of life at the Factory.
“All your hard work really paid off. It’s quite an accomplishment.” I complimented him and then noticed Sarah looking at me sadly.
“What about my hard work? Wasn’t my performance in ‘Keep the Change’ an accomplishment?” Sarah demanded to know.
I was prepared for Sarah to be jealous of her twin brother for graduating ahead of her, but I hadn’t realized she would also envy his film. “Of course your performance in ‘Keep the Change’ was a big accomplishment,” I reassured her.
“Which is a bigger accomplishment?” Sarah persisted. “Being the star of a film or being the director?”
“They’re different, but equal. Daddy and I are proud of you both.” I stroked her cheek. “Max is proud of you too. He told all his friends about your movie.”
“Really? He told his friends?” Sarah smiled.
“Why not?” Henry was incredulous.
“I figured the school is sending it out to all the film festivals, so I don’t really need to make copies.”
“Are you out of your mind?” my husband blurted. “When you look for a job, you’ll need to show samples of your work. You worked a whole semester and made a terrific film. Don’t you want it for your portfolio?”
Max shrugged. “I can probably make a copy today if I can find a hard drive. Or maybe I could get the school to send it to me later.”
“Forget ‘probably and ‘maybe.’ You’re doing this TODAY.” I insisted. Procrastination and/or ADHD would not triumph over common sense the day before graduation.
As we drove Max to his dorm to retrieve his lap top, a chilling rain fell relentlessly. The downpour continued when we returned to the film studio to watch Max fiddle on the computer and consult with other students.
“You guys can relax in these comfortable chairs while I work.” Max assured us
“How long will it take?” Henry was exhausted from the drive and wanted a nap.
“Anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour and a half…”
Henry and I left him and didn’t see our son again until dinner. “There goes our plan of packing up today and leaving in the early afternoon,” I lamented. But getting a copy of the film was my top priority.
The arduous task of packing Max’s stuff began after meeting Max’s professors and devouring a delicious brunch. In order to prevent Max from stuffing his clothing and books into industrial size garbage bags –as he’d done in previous years— I’d brought up two enormous suitcases, a duffel bag and an extra laundry bag.
Standing on the threshold of Max’s room in my high heeled pumps, I saw that my plan of organized packing had failed miserably. The suitcases were overflowing with filthy clothes. Pants and shirts were inside out or in wrinkled balls. Shoes and sneakers—mostly missing laces— had been stuffed haphazardly into different bags along with paperback books. Every surface in Max’s room was sticky, encrusted with dirt, and/or covered with half empty mugs and glasses. Drafts of papers, candy wrappers, squashed soda bottles and what turned out to be $7.50 in change were also scattered throughout the room. Forget about leaving my son’s room “broom clean.”
Somehow we shoe-horned everything into the car and hit the road by 5:30 PM. Thank God we had taken Max’s toboggan home a few weeks earlier. Driving home, Henry could barely see out the rear view window. If it wasn’t for Uncle Andy taking the rest of the family and our luggage, we’d probably have needed a U-haul. Next to his mountain of belongings, Max sat in the back seat with tears running down his face, having just said goodbye to his four best friends and housemates.
“C’mon everyone, group hug,” one friend had called out. “Last chance. Elisofon’s leaving forever.”