I remember bits and pieces of my college graduation day. I remember being exhausted, cranky, excited, sad, and unfortunately at the end of it all, extremely lonely.
The day started out in a frenzied style. I was tired from a long night out and needed to paint concealer all over my face to cover the stress pimples and the bruised purple luggage under my eyes. I had found an ivory lace dress two days before and my cosmetologist of a cousin curled my hair. I remember picking a low kitten heel to try to eliminate the possibility of tripping while on stage.
The English Lit. Ceremony went well enough. I didn’t trip, and I had a confident, slow stride as I walked across stage. Afterwards, it was all friends and family surrounding me with hugs, money-filled envelopes, roses, tears, and congratulations. My father, a man of few affectionate words, even gave me a private speech about how proud he was.
Five of my six beautiful roommates, my family, and I went out for lunch after the ceremony. Amidst wrong orders, jokes about the vegetarians amongst our group, a few stains, and some really good Mediterranean food, I was happy.
The loneliness started in the evening during the commencement ceremony. A liquid ochre sun sent out beams in the sky, trying to claw its way back up to shine over us; the night sky wouldn’t hear of it and began to envelop Austin in its lavender-grey embrace, and it was then that I realized I had very few friends in my major.
Sure, English wasn’t that big of a major, and I had some of the same people in multiple classes. But, I had never really taken out the time to speak to too many of them. The few that I had become close with, weren’t graduating or weren’t responding to my texts until hours later. This was understandable, since I knew deep down that everyone hated me. Just kidding. Service was really bad with so many messages being sent across campus; also, I had a crap Boost mobile phone and a history of technology not finding me worth its services. So I shuffled around the buzzing crowd, seeking out a familiar face as people bunched into groups of familiarity. Let me tell you, graduation day is not the day to make new friends. It was funny, but that was the first time out of my entire time at UT that I truly felt like an outcast. Meeting people was pathetically easy. I had met people in grocery lines, malls, restaurants, in class, in the bathroom, everywhere and anywhere in Austin—I had acquainted myself with strangers (mostly UT students, still strangers).
All of a sudden, it felt like high school almost, except my fellow English majors weren’t being rude. Graduation just wasn’t the occasion for meeting new people; it wasn’t orientation or a class or an organizational meeting. It was the last day to cling to people that we had spent the last four years with; people who a lot of us wouldn’t see again.
So I understood, accepted my loneliness in a crowd, and shuffled with the flow of cattle to find a seat. I was a straggler; despite initially being at the front of the crowd, my search for friendship had led me to the back of the group. That’s when the thunder of loneliness really struck. The Liberal Arts College seating was full. Brimming. Packed. I tried to spot just one empty chair, but every single folding metal seat had a rump on it. And every single one of those rumps was wearing the standard garbage bag graduation gown with a satin white Liberal Arts stole adorning their shoulders.
A speaker announced that all of the graduates needed to find seating so that the ceremony could begin. I looked around panicked in my last, feeble attempt to find a seat with other people who were dressed just like me. But to no avail, about 20 Liberal Arts majors, alongside myself, were shoved into the Engineering seating area. That’s when it really felt like I was in high school.
The Engineering stoles were a hot orange, with the sun glinting of off them, they yelled: money, math, science, opportunity. The faces above the stoles were encased with ego, and I caught a number of students look at me and my fellow white stolers with a wayward glance of, “what are they doing here?”
The commencement speeches began, and to my dismay the loneliness only increased. A dean from each college came and gave a speech about the inevitable future. The speaker for the Liberal Arts College was a disappointment, the only worthy thing he said was that still resonates with me was that “. . . liberal arts students are dreamers, and you need to keep on dreaming”. When the speaker left the stage, of course the big group of white stolers went wild with applause, my group (white stoles and orange stoles) remained almost motionless. The white stolers clapped quietly, in contained fashion lest we upset any orange stoled individual, after all we had encroached upon their territory. When the Engineering speaker finished his rousing speech that echoed what the hot orange stoles were yelling already, seats were overturned in my sitting area with future engineers shouting their excitement.
Despite the thousands of fellow graduates encasing me from every side, I still felt alone. I wondered, “Oh god, is life really like high school? Is that how I’m going to feel forever? Will people always be separated by their stoles? This is how societal classes are born, and I’m at the bottom of the food chain.”
Understandably, people tend to cling to what is familiar. People are hubris sometimes. But, I clapped for those engineering students after their Dean congratulated them. I clapped for them for doing something that I wasn’t capable of, for graduating, for making something of themselves, for earning a higher education. But the majority of them, alongside other non-white stolers and white stolers, never really clapped for anyone but themselves. I tried to clap for every stole color, even though it was gentle applause that was hardly audible over the uproar of sweaty, mostly unemployed grads.
So class does matter, monetary value trumps a lot of moral values, and people will cling to their own “kind”. I hope that someday people can let that kind of crap go and clap for each other. I felt looked down upon sitting in that sea of orange stoles, and that is not how my fellow alumni should have made me feel on graduation day. Why is it so easy for people to express disdain instead of kindness, even when they are well-educated (this term is used loosely) and it is a happy occasion?
I hope that a lot of those alumni, and people in general, experience “A Belated Graduation” instead of no graduation at all when it comes to kindness. It’s a rarity to see someone applaud someone else’s achievements when it comes to the hoi polloi, but I really do hope that people learn to clap, and I hope I learn to clap louder.