1. an act or instance of commencing; beginning
2. the ceremony of conferring degrees or granting diplomas at the end of the academic year
3. the day on which this ceremony takes place
I like how words in the English language sometimes have convoluted, contradictory meanings. Happy Commencement Week, graduate! You're beginning a new life stage...which means an older stage is coming to an end. I guess we could analyze what it really means to begin and if an ending is actually an end; however, I think we can agree that the two work in conjunction, in a sort of cyclic manner, even when we're only conscious of one, beginning, or the other, end. While my first ever experience of Commencement Week very clearly consisted of definitions two and three, I find myself, one week later, still pondering definition one and its application to my life and the lives of the recent graduates.
Thinking about commencement takes me back to what I know, high school graduation. While there is a sense of moving on and up in both occasions, the two differ immensely. Graduation evokes memories of one annoying day, a day where you had to wake up early, drive from Coral Springs to Boca Raton, and sit through a full rehearsal of the ceremony nobody wants to be a part of. A ceremony where you're dressed to impress, but no one can see your Brooks Brothers button-down because you're wearing that hideous gown; and, instead of showing off the perfect pleats in your trousers, you're making sure your cap is staying on correctly. A cap that you're not allowed to throw in the air in celebration, for fear it will come down at just the right angle to gouge someone's eye out. But you throw it anyway, and you take photos, and you go home, and it's over.
Commencement is distinct, its own special sort of ceremony. For one week, you just marinate. You know, soak it all in. Maybe you're the one leaving, or your best friend or significant other is departing. Maybe a visiting professor is moving on, or a long present mentor has decided to retire. Perhaps it hits all at the beginning, with emotions rushing free and tumbling into contemplation over the course of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Or possibly it builds, sprouting and growing from nothing, eventually spilling over into Sunday and trickling into Monday.
For me, Commencement Week began very much at the end. The end of the semester, the end of a frantic, stressful finals week. It all came thundering to a sudden halt, like the emergency brake on my life had been yanked in desperation. And then I began to breathe. Oberlin, in my eyes, transformed from a tense, purely academic realm, to a warm, carefree expanse. My airway widened to take in people and experiences, some familiar and some not so familiar. I went swimming in the Arb, I bathed topless at Chance Creek; it was all so 'Obie.' I enjoyed it. Most appreciated were the familiar faces that returned for the commencement festivities. Baby alumni, some who graduated two years ago, many who had just graduated the year before, returned in droves. With some I exchanged stories, with others there was only time for hugs. It all felt like more than enough.
And suddenly all the commencing comes to a conclusion. The undergraduates line up, the procession comes in, and the new graduates disperse. A funny air hangs over Tappan Square and everyone just inhales. There's some crying, there's still quite a bit of packing to be done. There are many goodbyes, but really we're just all commencing...something.
Congratulations Oberlin College, Class of 2012