Monday, 23 January 2012

Graduations can be Fun

22 June 2009

Harvard's graduation is one of the most glorious of all grads in the world. It happens over three days. First, the pre-graduation ceremonies where students take over reciting heartwarming orations by heart, delivering satirical lines on the financial crisis and the environment, laced with deep irony but mostly stupendous wit, and make fun of their sojourn at Harvard. Matt Lauer, the American television host of NBC’s Today Show, ended the day with an irreverent speech, basically advising students to have fun and many babies. This is followed by the real graduation known as the Commencement Exercises, and culminates with House ceremonies where students are awarded individually.

 The university maintains a wonderful balance between the festive, the irreverent, the intellectual, and the dignified. The whole of Harvard square is transformed into the Tercentenary Theatre, dotted with over 10 000 seats, colourful banners, large as life screens, the Harvard choir, orchestral bands, and processions waving their distinctive House colours. Seating is set aside for seniors, graduates, parents of seniors, parents of graduates, alumnae, faculty, special guests, persons with disabilities, and for those with partial visibility. Woe, betide those who come late.

Doting parents arrive at six in the morning in order to secure a seat, hoping to catch a glimpse of their brilliant offspring in the sea of faces wedged vertically between the Memorial Church and the Widener library, and horizontally between the University Hall and Sever Hall.

No one gets me up that early, not even my daughter, so I arrive, late, of course, and not a seat in sight in the parents’ section. Crushed in the well-dressed mob, I weave my way out of the barbaric push, followed a little boy, past the security officials, and landed myself, by default, a seat in prime area – earmarked for the alumnae. And Harvard’s alumnae include the illustrious, some Nobel Prize Winners, among them and I could see that they just knew that I did not belong there. Luckily Obama’s post-racial Harvard dared not show any prejudice, so I behaved as though I belonged there and looked every inch the part, dressed to the nines for my daughter.

The august ceremony is opened by the Sheriff of Middlesex County who gives the order, to which the entire audience responds with a rousing cheer that reverberates through the whole of Cambridge! This tradition stems from colonial times when Commencement ceremonies ended with such revelry, that civic authorities “were hard-pressed to keep the festivities under control.” Today the sheriff is a “pleasant reminder that he is invited to preserve order.”

 The programme is awe-inspiring. The atmosphere is infectious - a bit like a medieval fair, bacchanalian feast, academic procession, and trade show, wrapped in one!!! The serious stuff is equally captivating. Three traditional student addresses: the Latin Salutatory, the Senior English Address, and the Graduate English Address, steal the show. The Latin oration, recited by heart, wows the audience. It makes fun of the descent of man from the mythical Golden Age, to the Silver, to the Bronze, to the Age of Iron, ending with the Age of Heroes – the people that make it happen, including the Dorm Crew Captains, whose noble task was to clean the bathrooms and toilets!

The conferment of degrees is quick and fun. Unlike here, where all students are called individually, faculties are called one by one to loud cheering irreverently competing with each other for who best can bring the house down,  waving their colourful and distinctive memorabilia. The Kennedy School of Government waves blue balloons; the law school gavels, the business school country flags, the education school children’s books, and the medical school surgical masks – creating a feast of colour in the student section!

Honorary doctorates are awarded to ten luminaries, amongst them my favourites - Pedro Almodovar, Joan Didion, and Wynton Marsalis, the acclaimed jazz trumpeter. The graduation culminates with the gathering of the Alumni with a speech by Dr Stephen Chu, the United States Secretary of Energy, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics in 1997, no less.

The entire spectacle is made so much sweeter by the fact that my little Julia graduated in Economics, with distinction, nogal. And I am not bragging!

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