It was my next door neighbor Christine Cross’s idea. She called to me a few days ago from as she was hand watering the proliferation of foliage that is her front yard, “Jan! The Man will host graduation on Friday.”
That made me smile. I’d just pulled into my driveway and gotten out of my car when I heard her. “Yeah?” I said.
“Well, you know, so many students can’t attend a ceremony this year,” she said.
I do know. Some of those disappointed students are mine at Sacramento City College. I told Christine that, and she looked sympathetic. I love The Man, her 6-foot-tall manikin butler whose greenish face looks like something out a horror movie. He’s a fixture at Halloween when Christine turns the yard into (depending on the year) a graveyard with mummies rising from the ground, a witches’ coven and, one year, a vampiric beauty shop. The Man gets dressed for Easter and other occasions, too, often with signs and accompanying set pieces. Maybe she was a set dresser in another life.
I went back in the house to the computer where I spend so much time these days, and in a few minutes, I heard my doorbell. I went to peer out the door to see Christine. I opened the door and smiled at her.
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “If you give me your students’ names, I’ll put them out with The Man, too.”
I immediately loved the idea. “Great!” I said. “I’m meeting with them tomorrow. I’ll check to see who all is graduating.”
The next day I Zoomed as my co-adviser Randy Allen and I do twice a week with the students of the Express, the Sac City online news site. We haven’t had a print paper for a year, which turns out to be a convenient thing in quarantine. These students have been tearing up the turf for the last two months, reporting on all things COVID-19 as they pertain to City College students, faculty and staff. Randy and I are so proud of the work they’re doing.
Now the semester is almost over, and we can’t gather with them, as we usually do in late May, in Land Park for a farewell picnic. Everyone seems sad about that, not least me.
To cheer myself up, when I was out on other errands, I went to a dollar store to see what they had in the way of graduation swag. I found a graduation 2020 banner to hang behind me in my home office at our final Zoom session next week on what should have been commencement day. Masked, alone in the aisle, I chose tall plastic cups, lanyards and rubber ducks with 2020 grad messages on them. I didn’t know how I’d get them to the graduates, but I figured I’d ask them for home addresses and drop them off, if necessary.
Christine was out decorating for two days before Friday, blowing up pink and black balloons and festooning her gazebo in the front yard. “I’m gonna have The Man in his ‘gown,’” she winked at me, and I knew he’d be attired in some creative way, “and I’m gonna set up chairs with each of your students’ names on them,” she said.
“That sounds great,” I said, and it did.
It turned out that I had no idea how great until I ventured out to the street Friday about noon after a couple hours of working online. There was The Man wearing his mask and draped in a plastic graduation tablecloth cape next to five black folding chairs about six feet apart, not only bearing each of my students’ names but also a silhouette of someone in cap and gown.
Crepe paper had joined the balloons on the gazebo, and there were wrapped “presents” in between each chair, along with facsimile diplomas and a box that said “gloves” on it. A table in the driveway held an open book spray painted gold (one of my former phone books I’d donated), along with flowers and happy graduation signs.
It was breathtaking, the lengths to which Christine had gone. I took photos. I wiped away tears. And then I went inside and uploaded the photos to my laptop and then to a site we use to communicate with the Express staff. I named the graduates and invited them to come by to see The Man and their names on chairs Friday or Saturday.
One of my former students and editors-in-chief, Danielle McKinney, came by Friday to help me (as she’s done for weeks now) organize my life and home office so I can work more effectively in it. (Dick has taken to calling her Wonder Woman.) And, though she graduated in December and has transferred to Sac State, it turned out that she was supposed to be part of the commencement ceremony, too. I presented Dani with graduation swag, and she prepared some for her fellow grads.
And then the texts began flying around the ether between Dani and four of her Express buddy graduates-to-be. She told me this and eventually said, “They want to come by at 3 p.m. Is that OK?”
It was perfect, and I called Dick to see if he could come serve as graduation photographer. He’d just photographed a friend’s daughter who, like Dani, had graduated in December after eight years in community college and was looking forward to the commencement ceremony. They all met at City College, and Dick took photos of Lauren, in cap and gown with her Early Childhood Education diploma, and of Lauren and her parents, Pam and Steve.
And at 3 p.m. Friday four punctual young journalists arrived: Kelsey, Rose, Sara and Ben. Kelsey and her mom drove in from Elk Grove, Ben from Davis. Dani and I joined them, and Dick came to document the occasion. I dug out my cap, gown and cowl and put it all on. I doubt that I’ll ever wear it in a commencement ceremony again. But it’s a proper outfit with a mortarboard that fits my head and a green and gold cowl (Sac State colors… go, Hornets!) that I purchased several years ago so I wouldn’t have to rent one for commencement.
But I don’t often wear the professorial outfit. For years I’ve volunteered at graduation ceremonies with the staff who put on the event. They don’t wear caps and gowns; they wear SCC T-shirts (I have a nice collection now). We help at the gym where the graduates gather before the ceremony. They’re asked to sign a long scroll that goes in a college time capsule for each year, and then they don their caps and gowns. Staffers stand by with bobby pins and advice on tassels (you wear it on the right until the president tells you to move it to the left, signifying that you are a graduate of Sacramento City College) and directions about how to line up. They fill out name cards that they’ll present before they walk across the stage with directions on how to pronounce their names.
One year I was asked to accompany a visually impaired student into the stadium and to her seat, then crouched nearby on the track so I could walk her to the stage. She crossed it herself, shaking hands with the college president, and I met her on the other side. She was in tears, so happy, and so was I.
And then the students begin the long walk to Hughes Stadium, the football stadium built in 1928, in two parallel lines. They stop and line two sides of a sidewalk near the North Gym and wait. Before long a line of robed and capped faculty and administrators walk between the students. There are cheers and hugs, and then, after the faculty head for the stadium, the students follow.
I played in high school and college bands for years, drumming or cymbaling through more choruses of “Pomp and Circumstance” than I can count. City College has a recording of it, so it’s a good version, but several years ago I was surprised, as we staff folks walked in with the students, how choked up I got listening to that repetitive song that used to drive me nuts. Because when the graduates walk in, their families and friends in the stands on the home team side stand up and cheer and holler. The graduates wave and grin, and then, I forget how tired I am at the end of another academic year. I forget how long it takes to read all those names (and kudos to my brave faculty colleagues who read them perfectly). All I can see are those shining faces of college graduates, many of them the first ones in their families to claim that distinction.
My graduating Express editors showed up Friday unrobed, uncapped, a come-as-you-are mini celebration—one in a long dress the color of burnished copper, another in cutoffs, still another with bare midriff and flowing harem pants. One of them came Saturday on her way to the first day of a new job. Each arrived with a mask, which they temporarily put away for photos. Each of them is unique in life and in their writing. I can identify their voices on the page without looking at the byline at the top of the story. That won’t always be the case. These students, like thousands of others I’ve taught, will fade into the background with time.
But I don’t want them to. Like parents wanting to preserve their babies in that sweet state, I want these students to stay just like this, as they are in those chairs, beaming and proud, the rest of their college careers ahead of them… not to mention their real lives.
Perhaps that’s why the tears leaked from the corners of my eyes. I’ll miss them something awful. But we want them to go on to become polished professionals with fulfilling careers and futures. We nurture them for a time, and then they fly to the next challenge.
One more academic year and I will retire from this college teaching life. I’m ready in so many ways. But looking at these faces, knowing these good people who have been my students, all of them—even the ones whose names and faces are a blur somewhere in the recesses of my mind—has shaped me, sustained me, frustrated me, enriched me and made my heart swell with gratitude.
As I wrote in a poem I’ve given for years to students on the last day of class:
Thanks for being here, students—
without your warm bodies
in hard chairs each week,
without your pens scribbling,
turning mute paper into vibrant voices,
without your smiles one moment
and puzzled looks the next,
I’d stand up here speaking
to indifferent air, adding
carbon dioxide for no reason—
just a talker,
not a teacher.