A Snapshot of the Artist as a College Graduate
My college graduation fell on Friday, May 13, 2016. If you’re superstitious, that may seem like an ill omen but I’m only a little stitious so it was all good. I remember the day felt strange; off somehow. My neighborhood’s streets were clogged with strange cars filled with middle schoolers who got dragged to watch an older sibling graduate. My neighbors’ lawns were sprinkled with moms squinting at iPhone screens; trying to get the perfect picture of their baby in a cap and gown. A feeling of finality lingered in the air.
Almost before I knew it, it was time. I ironed my dress shirt and tied and retied my tie. I took one last look in the mirror and headed out the door. The streets weren’t as backed up as I thought they’d be so I actually made pretty good time in Angie, my faithful ‘98 Camry. I arrived on campus and found parking spots to be few and far between. Luckily, I worked for the campus parking department so I got a parking pass for a lot right next to the stadium. I remember feeling so smug as I flashed my pass to the cop directing traffic and cruised by all the plebes who would have to walk half a mile in the May sun. I found an empty spot and put Angie in park. The walk to Sanford Stadium was short but I was already uncomfortably warm in the khakis and dress shirt I was wearing under my black robe. (Also, my tassel kept getting in my face and annoying me which gave me a whole new respect for folks who have long hair. I digress.) I filed into the stadium along with thousands of my peers and found my friends. We sat and waited for instructions.
In life, there are really only a few discrete moments where you can say, “This is the end of one era, and the beginning of another.” Graduations are one of these events. A year removed from college, I can say I definitely miss attending The University of Georgia. It’s not because I could sleep in whenever I wanted. It’s not because of the parties. It’s certainly not because of the classes. It’s because of the little things. I miss the smell of Caldwell hall in the morning. I miss drinking crappy dining hall coffee. I miss tossing a frisbee on top of a parking deck at 10PM. I miss throwing a football in the middle of the street with my roommates during the long evenings late in the spring semester; only going inside when the ball became impossible to see against the dusk sky. That’s what I miss. Those moments when classes and grades and the future all faded into the background to be replaced by the warm, hazy glow of simply being alive.
After what seemed like a small eternity, we were motioned to stand and prepare for the beginning of the graduation ceremony. The enormity of the moment hadn’t really sunken in for me until that moment. We all pointed to the upper deck of southwest corner of the stadium as we listened to the opening strains of the Battle Hymn of Bulldawg Nation. As the notes lingered and faded, it hit me that this was the last time I would take part in that tradition as a student.
The orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance” on a loop as we made our slow, winding way into the seats on the field. I remember standing and waiting as thousands of my fellow students found their way to their seats; waiting for the moment that we all had in mind when we first set foot on campus 4 years prior; never imagining it would come so quickly. Finally, the last student found their seat and the final dignitary made their way to the stage. Some school official, probably someone important, told us to take our seats. And so it began.
According to piece of paper stashed somewhere in my apartment, I have a Bachelors of Business Administration in Management. I hated almost every second of earning that degree. On a winter night early in the second semester of my sophomore year, I came to the realization that I really didn’t want to work in the business world. 40 years of scraping together nickels and dimes so I could retire and go play golf in Florida didn’t appeal to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what I did want to do so I just kept my business major because it was super broad which seemed like a good way to hedge my bets. Also, it was really easy. Suffice it to say my scholastic endeavors are not my fondest memories from UGA. The things I will carry with me throughout my life won’t be profit-loss analyses or cash flow statements. I’ll remember laughing at some stupid inside joke with my friends at 1 AM. I’ll remember handing my roommates L’s at FIFA. I’ll remember that one time I crowd-surfed at a rave. I’ll remember eating $5 Papa John’s pizza every Tuesday. I’ll remember throwing the game-winning touchdown for my sophomore year intramural flag football team. Those are the things that I’ll take with me from my time at The University of Georgia.
The rest of the ceremony flew past. Professors spoke and spouted the usual platitudes one hears at a graduation ceremony. Ryan Seacrest was our commencement speaker so that was cool. I don’t really remember much of what he said but hey, it was Ryan Seacrest! Eventually, we got down to business. President Jere Morehead stood and introduced the deans who were to confer our degrees upon us. It’s funny, really. All that time, effort, and studying, all for some dude I’d never seen before to say a few official-sounding words. The business school dean finished his spiel and we turned our tassels. A few minutes later, a speaker came on stage and said, “Congratulations, Class of 2016!” We all cheered and tossed our caps in the air. And that was that. We were college graduates. We were UGA alumni.
I have a theory that once you graduate, your love for your school changes. I think your school pride becomes infused with the love you hold for the memories made and friendships forged during your years at your institution of higher learning. I don’t know whether it was that new love or just my imagination, but when we sang our fight song, that final “And to hell with Georgia tech” had an special fervor about it. Either way, it was glorious.
College graduation can bring about an intense cocktail of emotion. There’s the happiness of having earned a degree competing with the sadness of leaving your college experience behind mixed with the fear of not knowing what the future holds. I remember I spent the day in a kind of impossibly happy melancholy.
I think there’s something unique about the actual graduation ceremony. Somehow, in that moment, everything freezes and you’re left suspended in a moment in time. It’s kind of like being at the top of a roller coaster at a theme park, You can see the entire park; the concession stands, the people in line, the other rides. Maybe you can see the parking lot where your car is parked. It’s peaceful, in a way. But at the same time, you know that in a few seconds, your stomach is going to be in your throat as you speed down the steep incline. Air will rush past your face as the coaster races down the track. Twists and turns and loops are about to slam your body against the restraints. Anticipation and calm and fear and excitement chase each other around your brain as you sit, perfectly still on top of the world. And then…the drop.
The graduation ceremony ended with a fireworks display. Thousands of newly minted college graduates ooo’d and ahh’d as they craned their necks to the sky, exulting over the cacophony of sound and color like children. I didn’t know the names of the vast majority of the folks I graduated with but when the fireworks ended and the stadium lights came back on, we all had the same smile on our faces. We’d made it. I looked around and I saw friends and family hugging and taking pictures and celebrating the moment. I saw kids who had double majors and honors and resumes as long as my arm. I saw kids who never imagined in a million years thought they’d go to college, much less graduate from the state’s flagship university. I saw folks who had their dream job lined up postgrad. I saw folks who had no idea what they were going to do with their lives. I saw people from every background, every race, every creed. I saw people similar to me and people who couldn’t be more different. But you know what? In that moment, it didn’t really matter. In that moment, we were all in agreement that there is no tradition more worthy of envy, no institution worthy of such loyalty as The University of Georgia.