For almost as long as I can remember, I've disliked all formal ceremonies.
I say "almost" because the Broadway School's May Festival of 1952 was the highlight of my public school "career."
There we were, Mrs. Eldrett's kindergarteners, all in white, skipping out the front door two-by-two, strewing flower petals hither and yon, on our merry way to the festival's highlight - the maypole.
Little did I and my classmates (and probably the teachers and parents too) know we were acting out an ancient pagan fertility ritual. But it seems not to have incurred any lasting damage, my stark-naked howlings at full moons to the contrary.
Another classic example: The culminating experience of Great Lakes boot camp was graduation - a big shmeer if ever there was one: Everyone decked out in dress blues, flags waving, bands playing, recruits marching almost in stepit was enough to make a stone heart burst. But I and two of my pals missed it. My company commander wanted a perfectly rectangular formation in the parade and since there were three of us in the last row out of what should've been six guys, he ordered us to stay in the barracks.
Heartbreak for sure, right? Wrong.
Since we now had the barracks all to ourselves, we took full advantage of what till then had been Pleasures Denied (or at least Pleasures Rarely Granted). In the hours the rest of the company was marching up a storm, we three guzzled at least five sodas and burned through a half-pack of cigarettes apiece. If my co-conspirators missed the ceremony, they didn't say so. As for me, it was the best deal boot camp ever offered.
There is, however, one ceremony I never miss - Paul Smith's College graduation.
As you might've figured out, I don't go to the graduation for the ceremony itself. The way I see it, ya seen 25 or 30 of 'em, ya seen 'em all. No, I'm only there for the students. Of course, the students are barely aware of my existence, which is as it should be, since it's their day, not mine. Still, I do my share, applauding them as they get special awards, as they walk across the stage, or sometimes just applauding for the heck of it. And afterwards, I say my congratulations and goodbyes to my special students, knowing - no matter how much we promise to stay in touch - I'll never see almost any of them again.
All in all, it's a bittersweet experience. They've grown and achieved a lot in the previous four years and I like to think I've helped a bunch of them along the way. On the other hand, I'm lousy dealing with loss. So while I always go to the graduations, I do so with a certain amount of ambivalence. And it was no different last Saturday, at my fortieth. I can't say I dawdled, exactly, but I sure didn't rush there. In fact, I got to the ceremony after it began.
Still, it was no big deal. What could I have missed? The processional in, the invocation, introductions of the luminaries, a speech or two? I wasn't going to miss the important stuff - the student awards, the handing out of diplomas, the processional out, and the shmoozing afterwards. And so I strolled up to the tent, too cool for words, and sidled up to Paul Pillis, who was standing just inside the doorway.
I've known Paul for 45 years and we worked together for at least 20 of them, so to say we know each other is understatement. But how well do we ever know anyone? Sometimes I think Paul and I read each other perfectly; other times I think we're members of totally separate societies, if not separate planets. And this was one of those times.
"Yo, Paul," I said, "what's shaking?"
"They just called your name," he said.
"Yeah, sure," I said.
"No. Really," he said.
"Right," I said. "And what, pray tell, did they call my name for?'
"You won an award."
I half-laughed, half-sneered.
"Seriously," he said. "You won an award."
I studied his features. There was no trace of a smirk, no mischievous twinkle in his eyes, no sign of any irony. I was starting to believe him.
"What award?" I asked.
"This one," he said, pointing to a place in the program.
It's called the Distinguished Teacher award, given for service and dedication.
"You're not kidding?" I said to Paul.
He shook his head.
I shrugged. It was all I could do.
That award is a special one, since the students vote for it. Some people dismiss it as a mere popularity contest, but I always considered it meaningful, precisely because the students did the voting. And let's get real - if it was awarded by the faculty or administration, it could just as likely be a popularity contestjust of a different sort. No matter - I've never considered I'd get the award.
"Oh yeah," Paul added, "when he announced you were the recipient, Dr. Mills said if anyone ran into you in the Blue Moon, to let you know about it."
Not a bad line, I thought, since chillin' in the Moon is my weekend ritual - one that anyone who knows me even slightly knows full well. But in this instance it was also ironic: For the first time in recent - and probably ancient - memory, I didn't go to the Moon that morning.
Another irony: Actually, I'd arrived on campus quite a while before graduation began. But on my way to the ceremony, I ran into one of my coworkers and we shot the breeze a bit, which is why I was unfashionably late. Not my fault I'm a riveting conversationalist, though - is it?
Anyhow, there's a happy ending here.
After Dr, Mills presented some of the student awards, he somehow spotted me and announced my presence to the gathering, to acknowledge my award.
If Andy Warhol isn't known for anything else, he is known for his quote about in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.
I've never had 15 minutes of fame, and at Saturday's graduation, I got maybe only 15 seconds' of it. But you want to know something? It's 15 seconds I'll always cherish.