My undergraduate commencement was a momentous occasion. I gathered with my friends on the recently denuded quad (Dutch elm disease had claimed the stately rows of trees that had previously shaded it), I walked across the stage, I shook the president's hand, and a few weeks later I got my diploma in a mailer tube.
But I didn't attend the ceremony for my master's degree. It was to be held in the basketball arena, and there was no walking across the stage for the thousands of graduates. Besides, I was headed to the big moment -- the Ph.D. hooding ceremony, held in a beautiful garden just off the Lawn at the University of Virginia.
There were between three and four hundred graduates at each of the two ceremonies today. Each of them heard the melodious voice of the dean of students pronounce their name, walked to the center of the stage to the sound of whoops from their family and friends, and took an empty embossed diploma cover from the hand of the president. Even as the student reached for it, the next name was being announced. They walked to the other side of the stage, passed by me or another faculty marshal, and it was over. Fifteen seconds in the spotlight.
Our culture elevates the commencement ceremony, whether high school or college, into a hugely significant rite of passage. We're supposed to have the party of our lives, be assaulted by existential anxiety, and experience it all in slow motion through a star filter. I think the reality is far more pedestrian for most students. And yet for most, there's only get one shot at it. Perhaps I'm lucky to have seven commencements a year. Sure, it means I'm not going anywhere; but at least I have a chance to savor the moment over and over and over.