Graduation is a blissfully joyful day. And I love it all!
Let me be clear: it’s not Commencement unless it’s dreadfully dull. Like a grey matte wall in an art museum, the rituals of graduations are so boring that we are forced to hunt down interesting things. It’s a kind of I Spy, Graduation Edition.
There are the names of the students. With their first, middle, and last names listed, you can see whose parents chose a Dactyl-Dactyl-Trochee meter for their children’s names and who didn’t have Ron Horton as their English teacher.
Then you play Regalia Bingo. Oo! I saw a Boston. I get a Clemson! There’s Northwestern. Gamecocks! It’s the one day a year when the faculty are irrationally dazzling. We pretend to be unimpressed, but don’t be fooled: we live for the show.
For 20 years, commencements for me were exceptionally formal affairs. On that day, Bob Jones University had no chill. I know, I know, they never have chill, but they had less on this day. Women graduates were required to wear all white under their gowns. We faculty women could wear black, if we chose. But never stripes, no flowers, or anything interesting. Black closed-toe-closed-heel shoes and tan hose were required. Hair had to be up off the shoulders. Your mortar board had to be FLAT on your head. I mean, FLAT. None of this jaunty cock to your cap. It was best to wear a black elastic skirt for comfort, black flats, and a white button-up blouse since the hood is designed to hook on to a man’s shirt button.
The master’s tippet sleeve is perfect for hiding car keys, M&Ms, the graduation program, or a book. That’s the first lesson you learn when you’ve earned your graduate degree.
You can’t properly don your regalia alone either. You need a friend to correctly attach your hood and fold out your alma mater‘s colors. This process is fitting because none of us made it through our education alone. We all had mentors, friends, parents, spouses, brothers, and sisters that brought us to this moment.
At my brother’s Ph.D. graduation from Ohio State–Yitzhak Rabin was the speaker–we all sat near the new veterinarian grads. Each of them had inflated cow insemination gloves, waving them in celebration. Scores of sickly-colored latex arms waving in the air made an impression.
For Grant’s D.M. graduation from Indiana, John Cougar Mellancamp also received a (honorary) Doctor of Music. There he slouched on stage in his jeans and sneakers and sunglasses.
These schools were not BJU.
BJU stores hundreds of graduation gowns–Bachelors, Masters, Ph.D. So you never had to buy a gown. It was one of the small perks. But the Bookstore didn’t know the difference between Indiana University and Indiana State University, so I always had the wrong hood. This is the opposite of a perk. It was just one more reminder that a woman’s credentials don’t actually matter.
I discovered my son was in my tummy the morning of graduation eighteen years ago. My parents and we drove up to Hendersonville after the morning convocation to celebrate. It actually snowed up in North Carolina that day–a weather fluke for May.
The next graduation would be the longest I would have ever been away from my infant son. He was my nursling, and every two-and-a-half hours during his short life I had been there for him without fail. But that morning I was up in the FMA choir loft away from the child I had prayed for for so long. I missed him. I felt anxious, like a mama dog whose puppies had been taken away for a vet visit. I was anxious. I was in pain.
It was that morning during Commencement when I read Isaiah. You could get away with reading the Bible in a service at BJU. What can they say? A friend had challenged me to read all the passages in the Bible where nursing was mentioned.
I was in the 49th chapter that day.
Can a woman forget her nursing child,Isaiah 49: 15-16
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.
Wait. What? God loves me the way I love Isaac? God chemically, organically craves me like I crave Isaac? God cannot forget me? Even more than I can forget Isaac? It made a deep impression on me that important, boring, colorful day.
The epiphanies continued. Because then I started to look around. . . . God loves my students the way I love Isaac?
And that changed everything. It led to our exodus from fundamentalism. Realizing that God cared for my students–no matter how much punishment the Bob Jones University administration insisted was necessary and biblical–changed everything.
Quite simply, I realized that God loves my students.
The last time I would process with the Bob Jones University faculty I was one of the “youngest” Ph.D.s. They always put the Ph.D.s in the front of the line to show us off. The only tenure you get at BJU is watching yourself progress further and further to the front of the choir loft. That’s it. That’s all we got. But when you get that terminal degree, you get to skip ahead a few rows.
So that last time I marched, I was paired with one of the oldest Ph.D.s at BJU–Dr. Panosian, one of my favorite teachers ever. He was my teacher not only for History of Civ, but also for Intro to Philosophy, so I got a front row seat to listen to that glorious voice of God. There he and I were, marching together, remembering the Provost’s instructions to keep pace with each other. He was silly and funny. And that was wonderful.
The hymn began. BJU doesn’t use “Pomp and Circumstance” like everyone else. They use some interminable-versed song–“A Mighty Fortress” or “And Can It Be.” On and on it goes. By the time you get into the room, you have no idea what verse they are on, but it’s never a verse you know, and you have to walk down stairs in a stupid-long gown. And who knows the 9th verse of “For All the Saints”?
And you sit. And you sit. And you sit. BJU has the students give short little pop-up testimonies while handing out the diplomas. Sometimes they are charming. Most of the time they are sycophantic. “I loved Chapel!” No, you didn’t. Don’t lie. Nobody loves Chapel.
Lots has changed since I’ve worn that doctoral gown alongside Dr. Panosian. My parents are now both in Heaven. My oldest will have his own processional next year. I don’t get to sit by Grant anymore, but I do wear his gown. One of the advantages to marrying your equal.
There are no rules for attire underneath your gown at Furman University. If I’m grinning in a silly way before and during and after the ceremony, that’s likely what I’m noticing even while my inner fundamentalist wants to straighten everyone’s cap. You can take the girl out of fundamentalism, but you can’t entirely take fundamentalism out of the girl.
Furman’s graduation is still formal–we are in the Sun Belt, after all–but it’s more joyful than anything I saw at BJU. Each student’s full name is announced. Parents and friends cheer. Faculty grin. We genuinely feel their success. It’s simply marvelous.
We didn’t have a graduation last year, so this year I get two. That may be why it’s extra sentimental for me. This year I have a front row seat in preparing the student speakers for the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020. Do you have any idea at the unmitigated glee these students are feeling? They MADE it through the worst crisis since their great-great grandparents! They didn’t just survive. They thrived.
Remember when Psychologist Jean Twenge said in 2017 that the “iGeneration”–what we now just call Get Z–was going to be too childish, too phone-focused, and too narcissistic to contribute to the world? She couldn’t have been more wrong. Now look at these graduates! Look what they’ve endured! Look what they’ve brought us through.
God still loves these students, by the way. I just have to say that again for anyone who might think otherwise.
Today I’ll be wearing waterproof mascara and a purple sequined mask to celebrate these precious people full of hope and joy. I love you all, and I’m honored to have shared these four years with you.
This day is an Ebenezer in black velvet and billowy wool. The Lord has helped us thus far. And I look forward to celebrating this year and many years ahead in this gentle place. I am so thankful.