I graduated from Boise High School in 1993, and it was such a great day. High school was a rough go for me, mostly due to painful shyness. I was nervous pretty much all the time, a feeling I remember most vividly when I think about lunchtime. We had a cafeteria, but I don't think I ever ate there, mostly out of worry that I'd have to pick a seat, and what if no one sat next to me—or did? But then I had to find a place to sit somewhere else—in a hallway or classroom, outside on steps or the lawn, every choice a minefield. The last thing I wanted anyone to suspect was that I didn't have anyone to sit with. Actually, that was the second to last thing: the last thing I wanted anyone to know about me was that I wanted someone to sit with, especially if I was sitting alone.
There's something deeply shameful about the desire to be seen and then not have that desire met. It's that feeling you get when you think someone is waving at you or calling your name, and it turns out they're calling out to someone else behind you. It's embarrassing in a way totally out of whack with what's actually happened, all because we've turned, responded to the hailing and attempted to take up the position of person-who-is-known, only to get the shutdown, to remain locked in ourselves, un-known. It's the worst. My solution in high school was to join five clubs that met during five different lunch hours so I never had to actually resolve the whole sitting thing.
Graduation meant the end of all that and a new start at college where I supposed lunch would be easier to figure out. It was, even if my shyness persisted. By the time my second graduation rolled around in 1997 I was thrilled all over again, the promise of new beginnings around the corner. I had absolutely no plan whatsoever, but I did have an apartment lined up in the East Village across from the headquarters of the Hell's Angels and just three blocks from a McDonald's and the number for Rainbow Temps, a temp agency that placed queers with excellent typing skills in temporary office jobs at big banks. Sure, I had to share a bed with an acquaintance in a very non-sexy way, but hey, it's what I could afford, and I felt free. I was so giddy about that graduation that the part where my divorced parents were going to be in the same room for hours and that I'd have to try and figure out how we could all eat dinner together without eating dinner together seemed a small price to pay.
Fast forward to 2005 and my graduation from UC Berkeley. Oh, this was a terrible one. I wasn't nearly done with my Ph.D., but they let me walk early so I could graduate with my girlfriend at the time who actually was done so we only had to do one more graduation ceremony. I'm a rule follower, so I knew I was being a cheaty-cheat rule breaker, and that felt awful. And then there was the part where that girlfriend had just told her family I was her girlfriend, my divorced parents were both there—including the stepmother, a recipe for discomfort for all—and I was less than three months into quitting smoking, and, well, that was a pretty shitty graduation. This one wasn't about new beginnings but about tolerating discomfort for a defined amount of time, and then it was over.
I've now been teaching full time for almost a decade, and that's a lot of graduations; this year is my fifth at UMBC. Here we are again for that mid-May field trip down to First Mariner, I mean Royal Farms Arena, to watch seemingly thousands of people walk across the stage as their names are called. Every year it's the same trip. I spend the morning doing the last bits of Spring semester grading, stare at the Internet with my cats for a bit, and then finally get it up to put clothes on and head downtown. I know the ceremony's going to be a long one, so I usually take a nip of a little something to take the edge off before strapping my rented gown and floppy hat—I got it off eBay for $25 or something (the whole suit runs over $800!)—to the back of my bicycle and tooling down Maryland Avenue. I roll up to no bike racks and lock up to the railing right outside the front door as my fellow faculty members pour off buses from Catonsville or try to find parking. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the university, gets the parking spot right in front, but every year I remind him I've got the best spot, and he laughs that laugh of his.
There's lunch in the faculty green room, so I pile it all on my plate, shove cookie after cookie in the tiny bag I'll wear under my gown to snack on during the show, and then it's time to put on our outfits. Faculty like to pretend that even though we're doctors we are bumbling when it comes to figuring out how to keep our hoods from choking us, so staff members help safety pin it all into place. We rush out and say hi to our excited graduates, and that's the part where I remember that even though it's rote to me now, every year it's their second big one, and while my new beginning is another round of summer school, for them, what's next is an exciting, delectable, terrifying mystery. That is the very best part of graduation, not knowing what comes next, and even though I know what's next for me as I head down to another one of these things, it remains a gift, every year, to be reminded of that rush of feeling on graduation day.