In the biorhythm of the academic year, this time of year ties together all the loose ends, providing a sense of finality. Next week I will attend graduation again. This must be how my daughter, who is a pediatrician, feels when she attends a child’s birth. It is incredibly unique to the participants, but the doctor has seen this before. Actually, Linda and I have already attended nine graduations of our own children, and we likely have at least three more to attend, the Lord willing.
This does not count all the graduations I have attended in my 22 years as a professor. They have varied in size and approach, but I am taken by how the people involved always embrace the event. In my first academic stop, I was not a fan of attending what seemed an impersonal exercise. In my second job, all faculty members were required to attend graduation and, since there were only about 100 of us, you would be noticed if you didn’t. Faculty would wait at the end of the stage for students from their discipline to walk off, and the students would go through a receiving line of handshakes and hugs. It was a very personal experience, usually held on the college lawn in May. It is one of the reasons that parents spend inordinate amounts of money to send their kids to small liberal arts schools.
As everyone knows, the ceremonies themselves are inordinately boring, almost without fail. Because of the size of the graduation, Texas A&M hosts the keynote speaker at a commencement convocation on Thursday prior to the five graduation ceremonies on Friday and Saturday. This shortens the graduation ceremony considerably, but it also removes virtually all hope that anything memorable will be said. But this does not mean that the ceremony is unimportant.
If Muster is what brings us back and holds us together, graduation is what propels us forward. For students, it is the uncertain embracing of responsibility, a little like cliff diving when you are not exactly sure how deep the water is. For those of us who invest in these students, it is a bittersweet goodbye to conversations in the hallway and the classroom, and a recognition that we are largely unnecessary to our students’ future successes. This is healthy, because there are others who need our investment. To linger too long regretting our losses is to miss the opportunity to invest our lives again.
This morning at Starbucks I saw Jessica, who is two years removed from this place that she loves, early in her marriage and motoring forward with her accounting firm. It brightened my day to see her face. But it heartened me even more to hear that she is investing her life in ministering to the homeless in Dallas through her church, even while she assumes substantial responsibility running jobs at the firm. She is not simply pursuing wealth and building business skills; she is investing in people and leading, inside and outside the work environment.
Last weekend Linda, Nathan and I drove to central Oklahoma to meet our older son, Kenny, at a state park. We spent our time together hiking and playing games but, more than anything, we laughed. It was a celebration of life, both life as we knew it and life as it is. Our boys are ten years apart in age. One still needs us, to some extent, and the other one doesn’t. One has gone on to greater things, the other aspires to greatness.
Still, it is clear to me how important it is to plug back in, to recharge, and to remember. It would be sad for Kenny if he did not have a place to return to where he is loved unconditionally, not based on his performance as a line manager in a Cessna plant. It would also be sad if he had not moved forward into his life apart from us. We pray the same will be true for his younger brother, and we are grateful for how Kenny reaches out to mentor Nathan in making the transition, while affirming him in who he is as a high school sophomore.
We have seen this happen before with our children, but we are reaching the end of watching these transitions. On the other hand, as long as I have the privilege of entering the university classroom, I will watch this process repeat itself with my students. I will cheer from the bleachers for them, and I will pose for a few pictures afterwards. I will rejoice in the celebration of their accomplishments.
I will watch them walk across that stage, and down the steps, and into a world that desperately needs people of character who will invest themselves in others. I will watch them walk forward confidently, but not without a glance over the shoulder to remember what this place has provided them.
Because, on a May Saturday in a place like this, walking forward into the waiting world is exactly what you ought to do.