Matriculating Down.

graduationIt’s graduation season which makes me think back on my high school graduation, or at least what I remember of it, which is almost nothing of the ceremony itself. It’s strange. I remember other peoples’ graduation ceremonies I’ve attended better than my own. Everything from the moment I stepped through the auditorium doors is a blank, maybe because it wasn’t that important to me. Finishing high school was important. The ceremony itself—the cap and gown, the tassel, walking across a stage to get a diploma when my name was called—wasn’t. In first through sixth grade my school had Field Day in late May, marking the beginning of the end of the school year. It was a day-long P.E., mostly races, which I hated because I was a lousy runner and always coming in last or close to it or even somewhere in the middle but nowhere near the winners just seemed to remind me of that. And there were tug-o-war competitions between classes which I kind of liked because they were my one chance to win something even if all we ever won was a lousy little ribbon: blue for first place, red for second, yellow for third. There was no ceremony of any kind. After the event a grownup just handed you your ribbon, and they weren’t always paying much attention so I got a couple of blue ribbons by saying, “Yeah, I just won the, uh, the six decibel caterwaul over there,” but that’s another story. And there was also at least one adult wandering around with a handful of green ribbons for participation. If you just showed up, if you weren’t sick that day, you got a green ribbon. And that’s what my high school diploma felt like: a green ribbon for just showing up.

What I do remember of the ceremony is getting to the arena downtown wearing my suit and tie, and getting there early enough that I wandered around the arena by myself for a while. I was there with my parents and I guess they were getting their seats while I was supposed to go downstairs and line up with my classmates, but all of my classmates were wandering around talking to each other and seeing if they could stick their arms far enough up into the machines to get a free Coke so I did that too. The school gym, which was normally used for pep rallies and basketball games and the Christmas talent show, wasn’t good enough for graduation ceremonies so the administrators rented the dilapidated downtown arena which was normally used for hockey games and wrestling events and a hideout for junkies. It’s since been demolished. When the time for the ceremony itself got close enough we all dutifully headed downstairs and were lined up. At some point we must have put on our caps and gowns. You’d think wearing a gown for two hours is something I’d remember but, no, still drawing a blank. I was placed somewhere in the middle, so I guess we were lined up by class ranking. I wasn’t valedictorian or salutatorian or stentorian. I didn’t even have perfect attendance. I was exceptionally average.

I was standing next to Sally, a girl I knew so barely I was kind of surprised to learn we were both in the same grade, and for some reason they made us go in as pairs. As we stepped up to the doors Sally grabbed my hand and said, “Oh God, this is it. Please tell me it’s going to be all right.”

I hope I told her it was going to be all right but I have no memory of any of it because we stepped through the doors and my last thought was, Well, let’s get this shit over with. No, that’s not entirely true. I remember thinking, wow, for Sally this is really a big deal, and I envied her feeling that way. Intellectually I knew this was a big deal. We’d spent more than a third of our lives in school. There’d been a lot of changes along the way. Some kids moved away and as I’d gotten older and moved through different schools my circle of classmates had gotten bigger, some had dropped out, and a few hadn’t made it, but I was still graduating with a handful of kids I’d started kindergarten with were in that auditorium graduating with me. This was a special event. I just couldn’t feel the specialness of it.

It’s strange what we remember and what we don’t. I remember being outside the auditorium after everything was over, still wearing my cap and down, and laughing with a friend of mine. One of my teachers came over and told me I looked happier at that moment than she’d ever seen me. Without thinking I grinned and said, “I wonder why that is,” and then laughed even more because I felt like I’d unintentionally insulted her even though she was one of the best teachers I’d had. And then we left. It’s not surprising to me that I don’t remember the car ride home because riding in the car was something I did regularly, but I think even then I was aware that I could barely remember anything from the previous two hours.

When we got home some of my friends showed up and dragged me away to one of their houses. We spent the night watching movies and playing games and eating and being stupid and whatever else we did to have a good time. We consumed every food item in the house. Around 4:30 am we were mixing flour and generic brand soda and we all finally went home well after dawn, still strangely wide awake in spite of being up the entire night. It wasn’t that different from a lot of other weekend nights we’d spent together and yet I remember every minute of it.

11 Comments

  1. Ann Koplow

    I’ll remember this post, Chris. And I’ll show it to my son, who’s graduating this year. He probably won’t remember much of his graduation, either, when he’s your age. I’m guessing that because he hasn’t even ordered a yearbook!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Sometimes we don’t need material things to help us remember, but I hope he’s had some memorable experiences to carry him forward.

      Reply
  2. halfa1000miles

    Even when I was a dumb 17-year old graduating Senior, I thought of it as nothing. It wasn’t any big accomplishment and I did not see it as any big deal. Congratulations for your seriously half-ass work. You just completed the easiest thing you are ever going to do.

    I had partied earlier in the day and was paying for it as I sat waiting for my name to be called. I was on the verge of vomming every second. My only goal was to keep it down. I made it across the stage and went directly home to bed. For that, I was darn proud of myself. That day I swore off the mixed drink “C&C”. I skipped the after-parties so I could sleep it off. The next morning, very bright and early, a group of girls pulled up for our week-long graduation trip to the beach. I had not remembered planning this trip or saying I would go, but I had a packed bag in my room. I figured since I obviously sometime the previous day not only said yes, but had packed, that meant I had also told my boyfriend and my parents I was going away. I came to find out that I had done neither. We had no cell phones. I told no one where I was going. I just disappeared for a week. No authorities were notified however. I remember that.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Your graduation, or at least the aftermath of it, was a lot more memorable than mine. I pulled plenty of disappearing acts though. It’s nice that between cell phones and GPS devices and all that we can keep in touch and be easy to contact and find at all times but I kind of miss getting good and lost. Or going off with friends without my parents knowing where I was or what we were doing.
      I’d just come home and slip upstairs and quietly sleep off the bender.

      Reply
  3. halfa1000miles

    In my mind, both matriculate and masticate are very bad words. They just sound nasty.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Don’t ask me why that made me think of this quote:
      “I must have some kind of a reputation. There isn’t anything anybody can say to me anymore that doesn’t evoke some kind of a dirty laugh from the audience.”
      -Groucho Marx

      Reply
  4. Sarah

    I loved this! I smiled when I read about that teacher you liked commenting that you seemed happier than you ever had and you said, “I wonder why that is.” I can relate to saying things that just…come out! And maybe sound unintentionally snarky, even though that wasn’t what I meant at all. I wonder why that happens? Anyway, when you talked about everyone getting a green ribbon and the ribbons you ‘claimed’ even though you hadn’t actually earned them (haha) I thought of a YouTube video. It’s this commencement speech a teacher did where he tells the graduation class they aren’t special. Have you seen it? I think you can find it on YouTube if you just look for “you aren’t special commencement speech.” (I’m sure that was an obvious direction I just gave you.) Anyway it’s a great talk and relates to that part of your post, perfectly. It’s funny the things we remember and don’t remember. I loved Sally holding your hand and taking it so seriously. I bet she remembers every single second of that ceremony and it’s a watershed moment of her life to this day. I’m more in your arena–my graduation was nondescript, nothing to remember. Although, we did drive through a rough area of Buffalo to get to Kleinhan’s Music Hall. We passed a building that had the words ‘Killing Season’ spray painted on it, and I remember locking my door. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Sometimes those unintentionally snarky things come out because, in my case at least, my mouth works faster than my brain. Anyway thank you for recommending the “you are not special” commencement speech. I wish I’d heard a speech like that when I graduated either from high school or college because then I might have remembered it. The only end-of-year speech like that I’ve ever heard that I remembered is when my 7th grade teacher gave a talk called “Aim For The Stars”. She was a finalist to be the teacher on the space shuttle so it really connected with her personal ambitions.

      Reply
  5. Margot

    What I remember about my graduation is that it went on and on and on. I went to a large high school, and I think there were almost 500 kids in my class. Everything was boring and took forever. Since I grew up in Palo Alto, right across the street from Stanford, we were a very college bound group of kids. I think we all shared in the idea that this graduation wasn’t a big deal. We’d shown up, we’d done what was expected, and after graduation the was time for the real challenge to begin. We thought so highly of ourselves that when it was time to do the standardized testing every year, the proctor would say something like, “Okay guys, let’s keep Paly in the 99% percentile!” and we’d yell “hell yeah!” or something equally obnoxious. No wonder the social media giants came in and stole our town. I do remember feeling a little sorry for my family, since I was the 3rd kids in 3 years to put them through this. Our ceremony was outside on the football field and the families sat in the bleachers, which were both hot and uncomfortable.

    Reply
  6. TexasTrailerParkTrash

    My high school in California in 1965 had over 600 kids in the senior class. When we finally slogged through to the last name (a friend of mine whose name began with “Z”) the audience let out a roar of approval. My friend graciously walked across the outdoor stage and acknowledged the applause with a wave and a big smile. That’s all I remember about the ceremony.

    Then we went to grad nite at Disneyland, got knocked up at my boyfriend’s house the next morning (his parents were gone) and voila—that baby just turned 50 and has a PH.D in neuroanatomy. Life is funny.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That is an amazing collection of memories. Life is extremely funny and the best part of this is the happy endings, or rather many happy endings.

      Reply

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