Welcome to the last day of your university career. The itch to graduate has never been so literal.
I sit before a panoramic view of coloured pebbles, unable to spot my family.
We’re about an hour into my graduation ceremony and my upright posture and diplomatic smile have already wilted. I feel like I’m suffocating. My brow is covered in beads of sweat; my heavy black robe feels like a strait-jacket; and the cap on my head, a mass-produced piece of floating cardboard, is getting itchy.
One of my classmates, sitting two seats to my left, is scattering worried glances in all directions. Our eyes meet.
“It’s just…I really have to pee.” She confides.
I look at the black wall of robe-covered knees in both directions. The poor girl can’t—won’t—get by without making everyone stand up. Exiting a row is awkward as an audience member in a movie theatre … imagine trying to bow out when you are the spectacle?
There is still at least an hour left in the ceremony, so I give the girl my best sympathetic pout. She slouches back in her seat and shifts her weight. The novelty of graduating, like our makeup, has all but worn off.
We are trapped.
The line-up on stage consists of people I don’t even recognize. One by one the graduates hand a piece of paper to a tall girl with long hair. She, in turn, hands the paper to a bespectacled man at the podium. Each paper is imprinted with a student’s name and, sometimes, a special level of recognition. The man is butchering even the simplest of names.
I recognize my friend Jemima Codrington (Jeh-my-mah Cawd-ring-ton) nearing the front of the line. She stands upright, smiling. I cheer. The man speaks into the microphone and his voice thunders over the crowd: Jeh-mee-mah Co-rin-ton.
I fear for my good name.
As I curl the edges of my paper, I also worry that he’ll forget to say my designation. He has already lagged on “magna cum laudes” and “Dean’s honour rolls” for some other students. Maybe he’s even forgotten some–how would I know? Four or five years of achievement, tacked on as an afterthought 0r eliminated altogether?
As the procession continues, I imagine all the work that leads to achieving an honourable academic status: all those nights of sleep deprivation, days of research in the library, horrible and rushed meal choices, mind-numbing group study sessions and extremely tedious texts. I imagine my grandma in the audience waiting patiently for that split second when I pass in front of the camera…and then I imagine the name-reader just *oops* forgetting to mention that I am graduating with the highest honour.
Pre-emptive bitterness ensues.
As I adjust my awkward red hood for the umpteenth time, my row is summoned. I shoot up, straighten my shoulders, push away my worries, and begin to smile into the bright lights. It’s show time.
I am suddenly convinced I can locate my parents. Straining my eyes, I sort through the people who look bored (no doubt their loved one has already passed by) and the people that still sort of look like they’re hanging in there.
C’mon, c’mon…I’m only graduating with glasses on in hopes that I might see them!
I refocus when the long-haired girl reaches out for my piece of paper. I hand it to her with zest and try to look animated. The camera is on me.
The man reads: Elba Fabielli Carletti [dramatic pause] Summa Cum Laude.
I vigorously shake the hands of a line of strangers–yes, even smiling at the elusive York president, Mahmoud Shoukri–and thank them as if they actually know or care who I am. Then finally, at the end of the row, I see her.
Dr. Julia Creet—the chair of the English department, one of the best professors I have ever had, and the woman who signed her reputable name at the bottom of my reference letters—is smiling at me with her hand extended. I take it and, impulsively, transform the handshake into a heartfelt hug. I actually feel gratitude and a spark of celebration.
“Thank you.” I say with all the gumption I have in me.
“Be Brilliant.” She says, smiling through her crow’s feet.
Then it happens: I feel, for an ephemeral moment, like I care about York University. I think that maybe, just maybe, this school is more than a logo and an extremely annoying ad campaign. Truly—this place has more meaning than any old hunk of infrastructure. Yes! In my time here I have deliberately sought out the people, places and moments that matter.
And this moment—embedded in the middle of a monotonous conveyor-belt of a ceremony—matters.
All of a sudden I don’t regret attending the mass exodus, paying the robe fee, and sizzling in the stands. I don’t regret boring the crap out of the majority of the people sitting in front of me. I remember that somewhere in the audience my family sees me and is cheering. I’m blessed that one person in the line-up gave me a genuine smile. I am absolutely ecstatic that my name–humility be damned!–was followed by a hard-earned distinction.
For a second, dare I say, I feel like more than just a number.