• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Drive-Up Graduation

The secret ingredient was families.

July 31, 2020

Brookdale had its spring graduation on Thursday. It was an entirely new format, made necessary by social distancing. The dais was in a parking lot, with an open tent over it. Each family was given a 10-minute window during which they would drive up to the tent and have their moment. The family members could come right up to the dais to take pictures or videos as their student had their name called and walked across the stage. The student would pose for pictures with the college president, some taken by the official photographer and most taken by various family members and friends. Then it would be on to the next family.

That’s different from the usual arena version of graduation. In that version, the graduates all sit together, with their families in the stands. The speeches are live. Family members mostly are at a distance from the stage. The whole thing takes two hours. This took nine and covered a small fraction of the number of students. Also, it was preposterously hot. I was lucky to be in the tent, where at least we had fans, but still. Graduation regalia isn’t known for breathability, and it was blacktop-pavement-in-late-July hot. And we (mostly) wore masks, except when reading names at the microphone. (I had visions of sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher: wah-wah wah-wah …) Masks have their virtues, but cooling isn’t one of them.

The speeches and such had been prerecorded (indoors) in June and sent out to students online. Thursday was about the walk across the stage and the photos.

Still, allowing for length and heat -- did I mention the heat? -- it was pretty amazing.

The secret ingredient was families.

Watching the parade of SUVs disgorge their passengers all day taught me that you’d be surprised how many people you can fit in an SUV. Each family was supposed to be limited to one vehicle; one large family handled that by renting a party bus. I had to tip my cap. Many brought multiple generations, with grandparents and small children in tow.

In the arena, families are at a distance, and they form a mostly undifferentiated crowd. This time, each family had center stage all to itself for a moment.

We quickly worked out a routine. The car would let out the student, who would walk over to the ramp, where someone would ask how to pronounce their name so I wouldn’t butcher it too badly. Meanwhile, the car would move to another spot, where everybody who wanted to would get out, approach the stage, whip out their phones and spend a moment trying to find the camera function. We’d request that they let us know when they’re ready. When they gave a thumbs-up, I’d read the name of the graduate, who would walk up on stage and have pictures taken with the president.

Tolstoy was at least partially wrong -- not every happy family is alike. They’re quite different, actually. The family dynamics were palpable when they were right in front of the stage. We saw small children waving flags for their parents, grandparents struggling to stand but beaming with obvious pride, and a few sets of twins. One family came in a completely decked-out pickup truck with “congratulations” signs all over it; before the daughter even crossed the stage, the mom was visibly on the verge of tears. I don’t know the full story, but she nearly brought a few of us with her. In another case, the student was a man who looked roughly my age, accompanied by his wife and kids. The kids looked about 10, and his wife was absolutely beaming. Before he stepped off the stage, he turned and thanked us with an earnestness that caught me off guard. I don’t know the backstory, but I’d bet it’s a good one. In another case, the family matriarch was the student. When she stepped offstage, her entire family was hugging and giddy. You could feel their love and respect for her from the stage.

When those moments happen, I lose all track of time.

And the dogs! This year featured three different dogs accompanying grads. In the arena, that could have been an issue; in the parking lot, it wasn’t. Whenever a student came with a dog, I’d announce both names. It seemed only fair.

This version of graduation was much less about a Class of 2020 than about a whole bunch of families. That gave it a sweetness that isn’t always apparent in the arena version. At least a dozen families yelled something like “thank you for doing this!” as they went back to their cars, happy graduate in tow. It mattered to them. Imagine that nobody in your family ever went to college. You struggled to get your kid through, she graduated, and the occasion is marked with … an email? No. They deserve a public moment, when their name is announced and their friends and family go crazy and they’re the undisputed center of attention. Then the family can go out and celebrate.

COVID doesn’t have many silver linings, but this is one. We may have accidentally discovered something that gets closer to the point of graduation. This will be worth keeping. Maybe not in July, though …


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