By my rough estimate I have attended no fewer than 24 graduations in my lifetime. Four of those were mine, if I count the eighth grade ceremony where I sang a warbly version of “Bless the Beasts and the Children,” which was big in 1972, outfitted in a yellow polyester mini dress that hit me mid-thigh, the shortest dress my mother had ever allowed me to wear. I got dragooned into that by my eighth grade homeroom/English teacher, Mr. Rolicheck, the giant, thin man with the mostly shaved head and a graying goatee, who made me rewrite every paper I ever handed him because, he told me when I summoned the nerve to complain, “You have potential, Miss Haag.” I didn’t ask, “Potential for what?” but I knew the word and was pleased that he thought I had it.
At my high school graduation I thumped through endless repetitions of “Pomp and Circumstance” in the percussion section of the band, where I’d played three other graduations, but this one clothed in my first ill-fitting cap and gown. I gave up on the cap, which did not fit well (they never do, mortarboards, a word I learned at commencements) and went flying the first time I struck the tympani I was playing. As I recall, a kind trumpet player in the row in front of me retrieved it and handed it back to me. When it was time to call graduates’ names, I abandoned the tympani and went to stand in line right behind Carol Guild—she the last of the G’s, me the first of the H’s.
I attended my college graduation, sort of, though cap- and gown-less covering it for the paper I was leaving as editor-in-chief, preferring not to get caught up in a ceremony with literally hundreds of graduates on a football field, instead taking notes on speeches and racing back to the newsroom to bang out a story on the trusty manual Underwood that had been my boon companion for a year. I should say that I technically was not allowed to graduate with the Class of 1980 because I was six units shy of two bachelor’s degrees, having gotten incompletes in two journalism classes thanks to my nonstop work schedule on the paper. I was lucky I didn’t flunk out that year. It took me two years while working at my first two newspaper jobs to make up those incompletes, and after I did, my diploma arrived in the mail.
I did attend the football field ceremony with hundreds of graduates when I completed my master’s degree a decade later because my mother said that since she’d paid for all this education, the least I could do was go through the ceremony so she could sit in the stands as a proud parent. She had a good point, and she and my father braved the masses to watch me walk across the stage from a great distance. By this time I was married and the editor of a regional magazine, but I dutifully obeyed. My good friend and graduate adviser in journalism presented me with my diploma cover onstage, a nice moment. I never did find my parents in the crowd afterward.
Then, becoming a college professor myself, I was compelled to throw on a rented cap and gown and parade into the football stadium with other faculty and then sit like honorific black crows in the stands as the graduates paraded across the stage to receive their diploma covers and their relatives filled the stands, hooting and honking loud devices. While I was delighted to see students graduate, and the powers that be worked to keep the proceedings mercifully brief, I always went home with a raging headache.
So I learned that instead of gowning up, I could volunteer with other staffers to don a burgundy polo shirt embroidered with Sacramento City College in gold and help graduates in the gym figure out how to put on their regalia (another fancy word for “outfit,” I told many of them), including special gold or red, white and blue cords to indicate different honors, and bobby pin their caps to hairdos certain to be smashed by them.
In 2016 I was asked to escort Sandra Jefferson, who has limited vision, to her seat and then be ready to walk her to the stage. I’ll never forget her face or her proud husband Anthony. As she sat in a folding chair on the track, I sat near her behind a small retaining wall, out of sight of most spectators, and ran to Sandra’s side when it was time for her to walk the stage. As we did so, she whispered to me, “Just get me there and point me in the right direction. I can walk across the stage myself.”
Once I got her there, we paused just before her name was read. “Where do I go?” she asked.
“See that man in the center of the stage?” I asked.
“Which one?” Sandra asked.
“The tall Black man,” I said. “That’s the president of the college.”
She looked surprised. “We have a Black president?”
“Yep,” I said. “Head for him,” and Sandra did.
I met her on the other side of the stage holding her diploma cover in one hand.
“I didn’t know we have a Black president,” she said, beaming. As I escorted her back to her seat, Anthony in the stands roaring her name, she delivered a perfect queen’s wave with one hand, lightly holding my left elbow with the other.
It was, I told people, the best graduation ever.
Then came 2020, the year the whole world shut down. When commencement time came, no one commenced in our community college district. I found myself envious of places that held drive-through graduations, and I vicariously watched people waving signs at decorated cars holding graduates, some capped and gowned, chauffered like celebrities.
My next door neighbor Christine, who regularly decorates her front yard for holidays and occasions, put up some Class of 2020 signs. I told her that I loved them since my graduating journalism students who had toiled on the college news site would have to do so without ceremony. “Let’s give them one!” she said, and with that, the first Santa Ynez Way Curbside Commencement was born.
Christine added more graduation decorations and set five folding chairs at the curb, each with a silhouette of a graduate and that graduate’s name on it. She dressed up her 6-foot-tall manikin (formerly The Man, lately Old Bob) in his own cap and gown.
I invited the six graduating Express editors to come over one afternoon, donned the proper cap and gown I had finally bought in my waning years as a professor, and celebrated their accomplishments both academically and journalistically. Rose, Dani, Sarah, Ben, Kelsey and Sydney arrived, greeted each other after not having seen each other in person for a couple of months, sat in the chairs bearing their names and grinned for photos.
“Best graduation ever,” I pronounced.
And it was. Until this year, the second annual Curbside Commencement, which I used as an exercise in English usage. “Why can’t we call something the ‘first annual’?” I teased them in the email invitation, thinking that if they didn’t know the correct answer, I’d rescind the invitation. Casey, the Express editor-in-chief, responded first: “Because something can’t be annual until it’s held at least twice.” I’d asked Christine if she’d be willing to set up her lovely curbside commencement one last time—this time for me, too, since, I pointed out, I was at last graduating from community college.
“I thought you were retiring,” she teased.
“Same thing,” I said.
And Christine outdid herself again, setting up chairs and silhouettes bearing the names of Tony, Amaya, Casey, Shayla and Jen. She made popcorn for them and delivered in little bags, along with 2021 graduation rubber ducks, and she again painted her front porch steps for the occasion. Old Bob—now Old Grad Bob—again made an appearance, in appropriate regalia. This time, my Express co-adviser Randy Allen came, along with Dick, so we had two former Sacramento Bee photographers shooting the event, I pointed out to the students, some of whom came with parents or spouse.
They brought me flowers and gifts; I gave them mugs with the Express logo on them. We hugged and talked and had to move out of the street when cars came. No one honked, but many people waved.
“Best graduation ever,” I told my now-former students, and they agreed.
But there was one more. Sacramento City College organized (a huge undertaking) a drive-through commencement in its huge parking lot on campus to honor both the 2020 and 2021 graduates. Some 400 students RSVP’d.
Donning my SCC polo shirt one last time, I volunteered and was assigned to the farthest point the drivers would hit—the swap table. There I met four other colleagues cinching nylon bags containing SCC logo stuff, ready to hand out. We worked to peppy music blaring from speakers—not a trace of “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is, truth to tell, more a dirge than a dance.
And, given the last year, we all deserve to dance.
As my colleagues held congratulatory signs, the students convoyed through the big, empty lot just as I’d seen others do on videos—some in caps and gowns, some driving, some being driven. One graduate arrived in a huge old RV filled with well-wishers—a graduation party bus—and she hung out the window to gracefully receive her swag bag. One young man walked beside his family as they drove the route.
One young woman sat atop her family’s car as they slowly drove the coned route, waving at everyone as if she were the grand marshal of a parade—which, in a way, she was.
Finally, to see people in person, happy people, masked, yes, but out in public and celebrating. I spotted one of last year’s journalism graduates—now transferred to Sac State who’d just finished a reporting project for students for The New York Times, about to begin a photo internship for The Sacramento Bee—hired to shoot the commencement. I greeted the pregnant public information officer who had been so helpful to the Express students when they couldn’t reach sources typically found more easily on campus. The vice president of instruction came to give me a goodbye hug; when he was a young English prof, we started the college literary journal together. And I went to the president, handing out those blank diploma covers, and thanked him for his availability to the Express during these extraordinary times, not to mention his leadership of the college I’d called home since 1989.
He thanked me for my years at the college, said I would be missed, and hugged me twice, putting the cherry on the top of my already tall sundae.
And with that, after my shift ended, I strode across the parking lot toward Hughes Stadium, taking in its great Roman numerals indicating its origin in 1928, when it was “the largest of its kind in the United States.” I thought of the long lines of graduates I’d watched snaking toward the stadium before each ceremony, the crush of humanity emerging afterward, of delighted students chalking up their first degree of higher education—with luck not their last. So many of them the first in their families to attend college.
I hope it will be ever thus in the years to come. For each of those students, past, present and future—best graduation ever.