Even as a little kid, I couldn’t relate to formal ceremonies. And it didn’t matter what they were: religious, civic, school, Cub Scouts — you name it, I couldn’t relate to it.
In all fairness, my alienation was probably due less to the ceremonies themselves than to my universal mediocrity. Most of those ceremonies honored exceptional performance, something beyond both my reach and grasp. For example, the high school honor society’s initiation: It was held as an assembly in the auditorium and was paganism at its best. After sufficient speechifying by the powers that be, each of the anointed walked down the main aisle, dressed to the nines, holding a candle in their hands.
It was a true Ooh-Ahh moment that would’ve made Druids turn green with envy. Sadly, I couldn’t relate to it at all. If, however, there’d been a So-So Society, I’m sure I would’ve been the first on the list of sure inductees. But there wasn’t, so a wool-gathering shlemiel like me was left out in the Adirondack cold.
And it was the same with graduations. I remember my high school graduation well, but for only one reason: After it, there was a party with My Home Town’s greatest band, the Persuaders, providing the music.
I never went to any of my post-high school graduations. In college, I graduated in January, and graduates were expected to show up for the June commencement, an impossibility for me, since by then I was in boot camp.
Oh yeah, and speaking of boot camp: I never went to that graduation, either. When we formed up for it, we were in ranks of six across, tallest guys in front, shortest in the back. But in the last rank (mine) there were only four guys. So my company commander, in an act of uncharacteristic attention to detail, decided the company looked unbalanced like that and told us four to stay in the barracks. While you might think we considered that an insult, we didn’t. On the contrary, it was sheer delight. For while the rest of the company was strutting around the parade ground, passing in review for the high mucky-mucks and listening to hopelessly corny speeches coming out of a crappy sound system, we were living large.
Off our sleeping quarters, there was a lounge of sorts where we had our smoke breaks, and which had a soda machine. However, we were almost never allowed to smoke or buy sodas, two of the greatest joys any boot could wish for. But with the entire barracks empty except for the four shorties, it became a smoke-and-Coke orgy. In the two hours that we had the barracks to ourselves, I managed to swill five black cherry sodas and smoke at least a half-pack. If I’d planned boot camp graduation myself, I couldn’t have done a better job.
Two winners and 38 losers
As I said, after high school I never went to my own graduation, but as a teacher I sure went to a helluva lot of others — 41, to be exact.
I was always moved by those ceremonies. First, the joy and excitement of both students and parents filled the air and was downright palpable. Second, it was great to acknowledge the students’ achievement. And third, though most of them didn’t realize it, almost none of the students would see each other again. It didn’t matter what anyone hoped or even promised; this was IT — the end of the road for the bonds and bonding that they’d had for the previous several years. That was a powerful sub-current not missed by me.
But as much as I liked those things, one graduation fixture inevitably drove me nuts — the speeches. Or more specifically, the speeches of the featured speakers. There were always student speakers, and most of their speeches were excellent — heartfelt, honest and highlighting the nitty gritty of Paul Smith’s. The featured speakers, however, were a whole different ball game.
Their speeches were inevitably too long, too preachy, sometimes too pompous, and always ignoring the first rule of speaking: Know your audience. Actually, let me amend that. They knew their audience perfectly; unfortunately, it was themselves. As far as addressing things relevant to students and parents, it almost never happened. I kept a running tally, by the way, and out of 41 speakers, only two got A’s from me. All the rest, except one, got D’s. The one who didn’t get a D got a well-deserved F.
On paper, he should’ve been among the best. He was highly respected in his field and had traveled the entire globe — dozens of times. But while his life itself may have been fascinating, his telling of it was verbal Valium. He never varied his tone or pace, and he had no idea what details to leave out. So as he strolled over God’s green earth, he shlepped us along with him, dragging all his baggage and breathing his dust.
“Ah, yes,” he intoned, partway through his monologue, “I remember sitting on the banks of the Zambezi, on a quiet summer night, in the company of Sir Leslie Mallory-Manchester, the famous Lion Killer of Katanga. I turned to him and commented on how quiet it was, and he said, ‘Yes, quiet indeed.’ And after that I this and I that and … blah blah blah, crappo crappo crappo …”
At that point I found myself praying one of the big cats who’d escaped Sir Leslie’s sights would come bounding into the Chester L. Buxton gym and put me out of my misery.
When he finished, after what seemed like five more hours, I felt like I’d survived an aerial bombardment. Numb from the scalp down, slack-jawed and staring sightlessly into the middle distance, I stumbled out, swearing I’d never, ever put myself in that position again.
But since faculty attendance at graduation was required, how could I be saved from that Mongol sacking of the psyche?
As it turned out, I was saved from it, and my savior was Dave Vinopal.
Clicks with no pics
Dave was a fellow English teacher. He was also the guy who put the yearbook together, and as such he took the graduation ceremony pictures. He knew I was into photography and, wanting help with that chore, asked me if I’d like to take pics too. He need not have asked twice.
The next graduation was beyond my wildest dreams. While everyone else was glued to their seats (if not to the on-stage goings-on) I was flitting about, free as a bird, snapping this pic and that, and taking breaks outside the ceremony whenever I wanted — especially during the featured speech. It was a honeymoon of the best sort. And sadly, like all honeymoons, it had to end: After about 10 years, Dave no longer did the yearbook, and other peeps were designated the official graduation photographers.
What to do?
Well, if I’d learned nothing else taking pictures at graduation, I’d learned this much: While the camera loves almost nobody, almost everybody loves the camera. Point a camera at someone, and they suddenly come alive, beam an ear-to-ear grin, and mug it up to beat the bands. I found this was especially true of the pretentious and pompous — two omnipresent commodities of the ivory tower.
I’d also learned something else: In a college, even a small one, not only does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing, often it doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing either. And so I became the graduation ceremony’s guerrilla photographer.
I showed up when the graduation parade was forming, camera around neck, snapping pic after pic after pic. Or at least appearing to. In reality, while I was snapping, there were no pics, for one simple reason: I had no film in the camera.
Let’s get real: First, film was expensive. And second, the official photographers would take pictures galore. My photos were neither needed nor wanted. I continued this charade for another bunch of years, till faculty attendance was no longer mandatory. I still showed up then, but minus camera.
So did I ever feel bad about my ruse?
Nope, not even for a nanosecond.
Hey, I was there for the ceremony, from start to finish. Afterward, I gave my sincere congrats to the graduates, told their parents what a joy their kids had been, exchanged manly handshakes and avuncular hugs, and felt the inevitable pangs of both joy and loss.
Which, in my not-so-humble opinion, is what graduations are all about anyway.