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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yale Graduation, Part Two

Sunday and Monday the marathon of festivities continued.  Sunday is known as "Class Day", for speeches and awards.  Monday is the actual "Commencement", the parade of professors and graduates and the conferring of degrees, using formal language, scepters, bands, and flags.  These two events are massive, thousands of students and even more spectators filling the large grassy center of the Old Campus, surrounded by those ivy-covered buildings, row upon row upon row of plastic folding chairs, sunshine, shady trees, jumbotron screens, loudspeakers.  These mass events are followed by receptions and ceremonies in each of the residential colleges, which is part of the brilliance and appeal of Yale.  Six thousand students are divided into 12 colleges, each with its own square of dormitories, library, dining hall, grassy quad; each with its own master and dean who know the students by name. I suppose it is a mercy that the entire graduation event is partitioned, since each huge group ceremony takes a couple of hours, as does the individual residential college ceremony.  In Africa we would power through six or eight hours of speeches and song and dance, all in the blazing sun and hungry.  And we would save the most prestigious speech for last.  And the guest of honor would be hours late.  But not so in America.  The most important speech was first; the events ran like clockwork; there were tables where free bottled water was being distributed; there was plenty of seating.  

So a brief recap of each event.  Class Day is a curious mix of tradition and fun.  The students enter in their gowns, but instead of traditional mortar-board graduation caps they wear their own choice of hat.  Some are outlandish creations of flowers, sculptures, ribbons, colors.  Some are just meaningful.  Luke wore a Kenyan cap.  The main speaker was Secretary of State John Kerry.  He was funny and engaging.  The class speaker who beat Luke in the final selection was a 40-something single mom who had a moving story of overcoming fear to come back to school.  She was lovely and inspiring but personally I thought Luke's speech was better and more relevant to 99% of the graduates.  His and several other student writings were published in a "Graduation Anthology" handout.  We arrived early and had fantastic seats.  Afterwards the thousands of people churned through a few archways to receptions at each Master's house, a shuffling line of dressed-up parents shaking hands and smiling and vying for fruit and cheese.  We took Luke and a friend out to dinner and then left him to party and pack.  

Commencement on Monday began earlier.  Each undergraduate college marched in with their own banners and regalia, then each group of graduate students with their color-coded hoods and tassels.  This ceremony was more ancient, more structured.  The band led the way, there was an ornate scepter and a formal wording of the conferral of each group's degrees.  Twelve honorary doctorates were handed out to fascinating people including the INVENTOR of the World Wide Web, the neurobiologist who discovered the cause of Rett's disease, a musician whose banjo-bluegrass style has epitomized American music (he wrote "A man of constant sorrows" featured in Oh Brother Where Art Thou).  

After the group commencement we re-sorted ourselves under tents in the quad of each of the residential colleges.  Luke's college, Davenport, had the unprecedented honor of winning the triple-crown of Yale undergraduate life:  three competitions for highest average GPA, highest science GPA, and best intra-mural sports record.  Luke did his part in all three.  There were hugs and pictures, milling families, smiles and congratulations.  Then we sat and clapped as each student's name was read and they received their degrees.  They did not know ahead of time where the Summa, Magna, and Cum Laude grade cut-offs would be set since they are based on honoring a certain small percentage (about 5 each of the 120 kids graduating)  and not an absolute standard.  We were very proud of Luke as "magna cum laude" was announced after his degree.  Another dozen or more kids had this award and that award for specific achievements or future plans, including a Rhodes scholarship for one of his friends.  We teased Luke that if they gave an award for being sociable, and having amazing friends, he would win it!

Being parents who did not plan ahead, we were delighted when Luke's room mate's family included us in their post-graduation lunch.  We joined them in a private dining room in one of the nicest local restaurants, toasting our two sons. Jhamatt's father was a Singaporian diplomat who met and married his New York mother, and he grew up between the two places.  He is a brilliant, serious, wise kid who walks his own path and heads from here on a fellowship to perfect his Chinese, which includes some sort of culinary school in Taiwan.

We spent the later afternoon packing up the rest of what Luke wanted to save and loading it into the car, then drove back to Westport for a lovely celebratory dinner with the Gendells.  I can't say enough about their hospitality. I wish upon every slightly dazed and displaced missionary family such gracious friends.  They had champagne and crab claws ready, the grill fired up for steaks, warm congratulations and conversation, all topped off with a cake with Luke's name on it.  It was a perfect end to the weekend.  Caleb drove Luke to the train station to head back up to Yale, where he probably didn't sleep at all before his 4 am departure to Utah for a week of backpacking with friends.  We packed all of Luke's worldly goods (3 cardboard boxes of books and the espresso machine and sacred objects, a trunk holding his charcoal grill, a plastic bin of clothes, and a guitar) into our Volvo with our own suitcases and Caleb's and then slept until 5 am when we headed out to La Guardia to drop Caleb off for his flight back to the Air Force Academy.  And from there we drove about ten hours to Sago, West Virginia, but that's another story.

Perhaps a day and hundreds of miles are useful for perspective on all the Pomp and Circumstance which is graduation.  A few parting thoughts.  First, wonder.  Wonder that our kids, who sat on benches in mud-floored classrooms, who read books shipped on containers and passed down from family to family, who were little pale faces in a sometimes hostile crowd, have been able to stride into this world of privilege and sharpness and survive.  More than survive.  They have held their own with the best students in the world.  Literally Yale is a polyglot place, one is surrounded by families from around the world, and the Air Force academy draws the best from each of the states. They have found that they have what it takes.  Second, admiration.  Luke figured out how to make friends.  He entered the global health world and took advantage of fellowships and seminars. He chose his classes and learned from the best.  He pulled off good grades with decent effort (he described his experience at one point this weekend as breezing through college which is probably a bit optimistic but he knows he will have to work harder in the next phase) without being consumed by it.  We missed the final dinner for Gospel Choir, the final practice for Club Soccer, places where he invested time and leadership and where the kids reflected back to him thanks for the impact he had on their lives.  Caleb has also formed solid friendships and poured himself into Officer's Christian Fellowship, and works very hard on his studies (he is already pushing himself to the limits in a way that Luke anticipates in med school).  I admire their choices, their consistency, their independence of thought, their loyalty to relationship.  I admire the way that the large and small losses in their lives are working an eternal weight of maturity and hope.

And thirdly, grief.  Grief for a phase completed.  Grief for the brevity of the weekend.  Grief that our main glimpse into Luke's life comes as this chapter closes.  Grief that he had to navigate the competition, the intensity of people who are promoting themselves and launching careers of wealth and fame.  In fact that is one of the main surprises for us in spending time with our boys this weekend.  They are both immersed in cultures of success on a level that we do not remember.  When we were in college, we spent a summer working at a summer camp because it was fun and we made some pocket money.  We spent summers in Africa because we believed in what we were doing.  I don't think either of us had the resume pressure that kids feel now.  When some of the awards were read out, they could not have sounded any more extreme if they were parodies than if they were real.  So-and-so basically published new research, cured cancer, saved the world in their spare time while earning perfect grades and performing piano professionally for royalty. I applaud my kids for their sincere effort to cling to what is real, to step into experience for the sake of knowledge and goodness and to try to resist the culture of promoting their own stars.  It is a fine line.  They must wrestle with learning and accomplishing without being driven by perfection.  With serving without being driven by earning points.  With friendships that are not tainted by networking.  Luke was one of the only kids in his social groups that did not join a "society".  He decided that he could not afford the considerable fees or the time which he spent on work-study jobs to earn income instead.  Still these are difficult decisions, difficult lines to discern and walk.

Ironically my Bible reading (and commentary by Eugene Peterson) this morning was Jesus' spontaneous outburst of praise that the Kingdom is not revealed to the wise.  The Kingdom is an undercurrent, a transformation, an unexpected way of working.  It comes to Yale and the Air Force Academy; it comes to alley-ways and farmhouses and islands and hearts.  It comes in success of graduations and it comes even more clearly in the painful daily grind of trusting and holding on that makes a weekend like this possible.  It comes in the supportive community that carried us along and in the deep friendships across time and culture.  It comes in diplomas, but even more so in the scars of survival and faith.  For all of this we are thankful, and though another goodbye tears our hearts again, we believe it is not forever.


deborah said...

Sounds like an amazing time. I'm exhausted reading it! Thanks for sharing.

Treegirl said...

I love reading your blog posts. I forget about it for months, even though it's on my bookmark bar, and then I binge-read. I was struck by your quoting Jesus saying "the kingdom is not revealed to the wise," because from where I sit, you and your family have both :kingdom And wisdom. :)