Every other year at my college I am required to don cap and gown for graduation. The faculty parade between two lines of students about to earn their associate degrees and enter our historic football stadium. We line up on either side of the track, and the soon-to-be-graduates march in to “Pomp and Circumstance” as we applaud for them. I love this part.
The next part not so much. After the graduates are seated in folding chairs on the track, the faculty traipse up to the bleachers where we sit with increasingly sore posteriors for the rest of the ceremony. It’s a speedy 90 minutes, which is great for a commencement, but really, sitting there on display with my mortarboard falling off my head is never my favorite part.
Years ago when the College Relations department used to put on graduations, I volunteered in my off years with other classified staff folks (i.e., the people who really make the college run smoothly) to help. My favorite part was to work in the South Gym where the graduates gather, put on their caps and gowns, need help and bobby pins (mortarboards should come with Velcro) and ask, “Which side does the tassel go on?” (The right, by the way, while they are still candidates for graduation.)
Somehow I stopped doing this when graduation became the job of the folks in Admissions and Records, which makes sense because they are the people who keep track of who has completed the proper classes and requirements for an associate degree. But I looked upon attending graduations as a chore.
Last year, to try to get myself in a better mood about it, rather than renting a cap and gown, I bought my own regalia for the first time in my professorial career: a substantial gown with all the folds and gathers, a proper cowl in the right colors of my university (green and gold satin) rimmed by the color of my major (crimson for journalism), and a mortarboard in the right size with elastic that actually stayed on my head. I felt very well outfitted at last. Still, I missed helping with it all.
So this year when the email arrived seeking volunteers, I jumped at the chance. At least three of our journalism student editors were set to graduate, and I wanted to be there for them. So I signed up, collected my nifty maroon polo shirt with the Sacramento City College logo and “staff” designation on it and showed up at the appointed time in the South Gym.
This lady, it turned out was Sandra Jefferson, who was with her husband Anthony. They arrived looking nervous, which is not unusual for people at this point. “Sure,” I said, though I didn’t know what I would do.
They came over to me and explained that Sandra had limited vision. She was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to see where she was supposed to go. She needed to follow someone who could be with her through the ceremony while her husband went to sit with family members in the bleachers.
She was tall in her spiky heels. She grinned down at me. I liked her bright smile and we chatted a bit. She explained that she was legally blind, could only see light and shadow (“I see in black and white,” she said).
Immediately I thought of my college boyfriend, Curtis Richards, who is also legally blind. He was the first man I lived with the year I was the editor of the college paper and he was the managing editor. He still teases me about this, but I learned from him, among other things, to always put the cap back on the toothpaste and never put a clear glass in the sink. He’d knock it over and not be able to see the broken glass. He also rode a bike to school. Occasionally he’d run into something, but he always got back on and kept riding. I saw a similar kind of determination in Sandra Jefferson.
“I didn’t think I could do this,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine how I’d be able to figure out where to go or when.”
Anthony, also a tall person, looked down at me. “Jan will help you,” he said.
“Yep,” I said. “That’s what I’m here for.” Though until that moment, I hadn’t known that.
While we waited, I filled out the card that she would hand to the announcer who would read her name and major before she crossed the stage and shook the hand of the college president. “Sandra Lee Jefferson,” she instructed me. “Sociology.”
Sandra decided to change her shoes, trading her stilettos for flat sandals with sparkles on them pulled out of her purse. “Good idea,” I said. “You don’t want those heels getting stuck in the grass or on the track.”
“I love my heels,” she said.
“And you look great in them,” I said, knowing what kinds of obstacles lay ahead, “but the sandals will be easier. I promise.”
When the announcement came to do so, we lined up in the gym, me in my polo shirt behind a tall guy in his cap and gown, then Sandra behind me. “I can follow you,” she said, “if you don’t get too far ahead of me.”
So it was that, for the first time in the 23 years I’ve been a full-time professor, I processed with the candidates for graduation, not with the faculty. I must have looked out of place in my polo shirt, and I thought more than once that if I’d known I’d be doing this duty, I could’ve brought my snazzy cap and gown.
We lined up in two rows facing each other, and the faculty paraded toward the stadium. I told Sandra who was walking by, and when I saw the sociology teachers, I told her. “Professor Miller!” she hollered. “It’s me, Sandra!” And bless, Nich Miller, he waved back at her. I told her that he did, too. She beamed.
Once inside the stadium, the professors lined up and the students walked through. I got some funny looks from some people who had no idea why I was walking. “You graduating, Jan?” one called to me.
“In a way, yeah!” I called back and heard Sandra laughing behind me.
I led Sandra to a folding chair at the end of a row so it would be easier for her to make her way to the stage. I knelt next to her for a time and told her that I’d be nearby, but that I’d go sit at the edge of the track by the bleachers until she needed me. I took photos of her and sent them to her from my phone, then I sat during the speeches and tweeted photos.
I looked at my colleagues up in the bleachers. They chatted with each other and applauded when the names of students they knew were called. But I was so happy to be where I was, in the midst of things, with a real job to do.
After the speeches, which were mercifully short, it was time for Sandra to stand up from her seat and line up to walk up the ramp to the stage. “Tell me what’s going on,” she said, and I explained how people were lining up and moving toward a ramp that went to the stage.
“You’ll walk up the ramp to the president,” I began.
“What’s he look like?” she asked.
“He’s a tall black man,” I told her.
“Really?” she said, surprised.
I said, yes, and that our previous president was an African American woman. She beamed at that. “I never knew that,” she said, and it occurred to me that while we don’t usually refer to people by their racial designations or skin color, for Sandra, who is black, that information can be helpful. And, in this case, inspiring.
As we walked toward the ramp, my plan was to peel off and meet Sandra on the other side of the stage. But just as she started to walk up the ramp, Sandra touched my shoulder. “Go with me,” she said.
And so it was that, for the first time at Sacramento City College, I walked up the ramp with a graduate, smiling at Michael Poindexter, our interim president, who looked surprised to see me. I stepped aside. He shook Sandra’s hand and put his arm around her, posing for the photographer who takes pix of all the grads. He said, “Congratulations, young lady,” and she giggled. Then I stepped around them, said to Sandra, “I’m right here,” and walked ahead of her down another ramp and around to her seat.
I stayed nearby until everyone had received a diploma. Then the president asked the graduates to stand, turn around and wave to people in the stands. “And now,” he said, “you can move your tassel from the right to the left, signifying that you are now graduates of Sacramento City College.”
He didn’t say this, but it’s called “turning the tassel,” always a big moment in a commencement. The graduates cheered, and Sandra raised one hand over her head to wave to her family in the stands. My eyes clouded with tears.
It was one of those priceless moments when I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Earlier as we waited in the gym Sandra had told me that she hopes to transfer to Sac State, but she hasn’t applied yet. The idea of the big university scares her. “How will I get around?” she asked. “I’m afraid I’ll get lost.”
And that’s when I told her about Curtis, who got around just fine at big, old Sac State with limited vision. “He even rode a bicycle,” I told her.
She said, “Weren’t you scared for him?”
I said honestly, no, I wasn’t. “He’s the kind of man who can do anything,” I said. “And you’re the same kind of woman.”
She grinned at me and gave me a hug. Her husband Anthony came down to the track after the ceremony and hugged me, too. I took photos of Robin and Tyler and Daniel, too, my student editors-now-graduates and collected hugs from them, too. It was freepin’ awesome.
So although I do love my new cap and gown, I decided that I’m never going back to sit in the stands with the faculty. I want to be in the thick of things every year with the staff and the students. I was as happy as any of those graduates in Hughes Stadium, energized by the fact that I get to do this—teach at this college, watch some of my students and a whole lot of them who feel like my students accomplish a great thing. I was as proud as any of their family members for them.
And, best of all, I got to meet Sandra and Anthony Jefferson. He, by the way, needs to take an English composition class in the fall. He says he likes to write, and he’s gonna sign up for the one I’m going to teach. Whaddya know?