It wasn't real. We black-robed, silly-hatted seniors gathered outside of ARH to wait for the exercises of commencement to start -- which meant we were graduating. And none of us could believe that we were actually graduating, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I thought it was more likely that the whole deal was a lame practical joke. Our professors would wink at us when we got our diplomas, and we'd open them up to see just a big GOTCHA where a real diploma should be. So we seniors made small talk, joked, took photos, and began sweating through the graduation robes.
And then, as if guided by some mystical force, we arranged ourselves in alphabetical order and started to walk from the front of ARH to the lawns of Central Campus, where we were to sit in uncomfortable plastic chairs, lose about a gallon of sweat, and somehow complete four years of top-notch liberal arts education.
When we, the class of 2007, first came to Grinnell, we were probably too busy trying to impress our fellow college students with how college-studenty we were to think of ever leaving Grinnell. But we were there at commencement, older, more freaked out, and presumably wiser, to do that very thing. The ceremony was all incredibly uplifting and wise, I have to tell you. But I found I couldn't think about duty, or education, or any of the things I was being encouraged to worry about in profound ways -- I had more practical things to do.
Like sweat. Those black robes, in the still stifling midday heat of an Iowa summer, make a person feel less like they were graduating from an elite liberal arts institution and more like he or she was stranded in the Sahara, and the buzzards are gathering overhead. What most observers would take as a look of sublimity on our faces, or satisfaction, or relief, was more likely the symptoms of heat stroke. I even watched a ragged student take off his robes and wring the water out of them, before he swooned and fell face-first into the mortar board of the person in front of him. His parents probably thought he was doing something academic, and snapped a couple photos to show the folks back home.
When I wasn't sweating, I thought about how I needed to pee, and when I didn't think about that, I was disappointed. After the high school band played every uplifting tune besides "Pomp and Circumstance," after we filed into our seats, after the chaplain prayed to an inoffensive, one-sized-fits-all higher power, after the speeches were all read, the honorary degrees awarded, the hands clapped, the class of 2007 rose up, one by one, to shake President Osgood's hand and grab a diploma. Then we sat back down, watched the rest of the parade, and tried to clap extra-loud when one of our friends mounted the stage.
This was important, I guess. But shouldn't my brain grow a couple sizes larger now? Shouldn't I be able to wave my diploma in front of a prospective employer's face and get a job? Shouldn't something happen?
But then it was over. No lightning, no fire. We just all pulled off our robes and collapsed in heaps in the shade. Families found their children, and the children tried to lose their families, and off we all went to a picnic on South Campus so we Grinnellians could get one last chance at making awkward conversation. Mingling for Grinnellians is a bit of a difficult proposition normally. In Grinnell you might awkwardly wave at a person, say, you kissed one night. But at the picnic, you get introduced the girl's parents, siblings, and aunts, and they want to know everything about you -- and that certainly presents some problems. Our oldest friends from college were introduced to our friends who knew us when we picked our noses and played with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; our teachers were introduced to our parents -- one side of the equation having taught us how to think critically, write, and live -- the other side having taught us, among other things, how not to poop our pants.
Once the picnic ended, we wandered away to family dinners and naps. We would never take another Grinnell class. We would never again walk through the loggias and see familiar faces, and try to avoid those familiar faces. We were leaving everything behind -- besides our diplomas.
The few Grinnellians who stuck around Grinnell found the pub soon empty, the campus abandoned, our lives together stopped, almost mid-motion. It seemed cruel to leave Grinnell like that, the place that we had known for so long, to to have say goodbye to everyone, to have to get a job, to take off that sweaty black robe and that silly square hat and actually have to miss what we were about to leave behind -- the all-nighters, the bad parties, the awkward conversations. It wasn't uplifting or exciting. It was sad. Not just because it was an end of something big, but because it felt like our shared lives didn't have to end right then, like we could live in college our whole lives and never have to leave anyone.
But we were finally Grinnellians. You become a Grinnellian, I think, only when you leave, only when the chemical reaction of classes and stress and dining hall food and everything have done their slow invisible work and you bring your new knowledge and understanding into the outside world where you can actually appreciate it. Because being a Grinnellian isn't about being in Grinnell, or even talking with Grinnellians (or logging onto Plans). It's about a certain way of looking at the world and caring about what you look at.
Maybe that's why I was disappointed with the pomp -- I was expecting it to be a celebration of us leaving Grinnell. It wasn't that at all. It was about how we had become Grinnellians. It was about how we were not done yet. We were only just beginning.
But maybe that's just the heat stroke talking.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2007