This year will mark my 25th commencement ceremony. I’ll put on my black wool and velvet robe, my outrageous hat dangling with a veil of student business cards, and will boogie down the aisle with my colleagues to “When the Saints Go Marching In”, played by a live Dixieland band. I teach at an art and design college. Our commencement is a creative performance.
We’ll sit in the hot sun for a few hours listening to speeches, some inspirational, some blathering, some silly. Nearly two hundred students will cross the stage irreverently: boys in high heels, dogs in graduation gowns, roller skaters, moms with kids in decorated strollers, fashion majors who alter their gowns into original garment statements. One year, someone wearing nothing but his mortarboard; our college president just smiled and shook his hand.
When driving home, my palms will ache from clapping and stomping and making noise, as one by one, my students crossed the stage and exited our life together. In the span of about twenty yards, they will make the official transformation from student to fellow artist, and this moment is my real pay. For four years or 120 credits, I’ve been a midwife to their emerging creative voice. Our relationship has been extraordinarily intimate. I’ve seen them naked. We had conversations they will not have again. When they return, as they often do, to sit in my office and bring me up to speed on their life, we will have different conversations then, artist to artist.
Keynote speakers, when not self-aggrandizing windbags, give their best As You Move Toward Your Future speech. Keynote speakers are selected for their exemplary careers, and since it takes a few decades to build an exemplary career, are usually much older than the students they address. They describe a life that the faculty know. While we may not have had careers quite as exemplary, we have been artists for thirty or forty or fifty years too. We’ve had similar joys and disappointments. We understand that people come and go, but making art remains, never fails us, and is how we cope with the rest of it. The people passing Kleenex up and down the aisle are sitting in the faculty seats. Those words, also part of my real pay. Parents are thinking about how much dinner will cost and why their tuition dollars did not buy a commencement tent and the optimum location for photos as their person crosses the stage. Students are thinking about a weekend of parties and goodbyes. They will not remember the speaker’s address.
Every year, as I head back to my car, I run into a few juniors, who will be seniors in September. We stop and chat about summer plans, then say goodbye for a few months. In these moments, I am aware of a shift in the line, that I have turned to face the next crop of artists in the chute. During the drive toward home, the teacher hat comes off, and I begin nearly four months of uninterrupted studio time. On May 21st, I'm going to be the wealthiest woman on the planet.