Sunday, May 13, 2007

Rituals and Cross-Cultural Symbolism

Yesterday I attended Liberal College Law's commencement as a guest, which was really relaxing. I could have walked, but decided not to go through the rigamarole (and by the time I was wavering a bit under the peer pressure of French Dandy Dude, it was too late to order regalia anyway). I sat with a friend's family, and gaily cheered for a few friends. I took a lot of pictures that I knew they would want to have, and was very entertained and inspired by the wonderful speeches. Now I know why families like to attend these things.

I haven't watched a graduation in a long while, and that was when a friend graduated from a Catholic liberal arts college and it was a Mass--very different. I sat there mostly not knowing what to do and when to bow my head. So I've never really been a guest at a graduation--I was always graduating myself, and it's a different thing experiencing the ceremony as a participant or spectator. When you are graduating, you listen to the speeches with some strange mixture of anticipation and responsibility. You hear these words, and you know that they are supposed to mean something to you. You should listen and learn, you know that you will reflect on this day and these words with some sense of responsibility. There was a call to arms, and you are responsible for arming yourself. You feel oddly spotlit and directly addressed, and coupled with the general nervousness that everyone is watching you and knowing that you're waiting for all sorts of cues of when to walk and fearing that you'll trip, it's an altogether antsy feeling. When you're a guest, it's kind of fun to listen to these speeches and think "atta boy/girl! you listen to that inspiring death penalty reformer and you go do that!"

I'm not saying that everyone in the audience is so blithe, indeed I myself feel the same sort of responsibility to "do good in addition to doing well" and to commit myself to justice and "use my degree as a microphone for achieving justice and changing the world." But at least I wasn't nervously picking at my gown while I was listening to this. And I wasn't feeling like I was waiting to do anything in particular or trip publicly and plow into the dean. I got all of the inspiration and none of the nervousness, and it was great.

It was interesting to me how different commencement ceremonies are everywhere. In contrast to Bourgie Metropolis Law, here the J.D. candidates weren't hooded--they walked in with hoods, and were handed a fake diploma scroll. Here the doctoral students sat on the stage with their advisors, and were ceremonially hooded. I prefer the ceremonial hooding--it's a ritual with a reason, and I regretted that the J.D.s didn't get to experience that, even if the ceremony was more efficient. Here, the keynote speakers weren't former alumni or some quasi celebrity, but rather a great example of an advocate for social justice. I like that better actually--I didn't particularly care for the speaker at my law school graduation, and yesterday's speaker was incredibly inspiring--he got a standing ovation at the end, and I think his speech affected many. He inspired the new graduates to pursue justice with hope and energy despite the potential for fatigue and disappointment. It was a very eloquent speech, and I can't do it justice by summarizing--suffice it to say that words can still have great power, and that is extraordinary.

It also struck me how many people's families will travel to go to these ceremonies. They must mean something, these rituals and rites of passage. It was a bit surprising to see how many families of the international students attended--a lot more in airfare, when you think about it, than any J.D. student! A few members of my family might be persuaded to attend my S.J.D. ceremony in 3 years, but I didn't even ask them to come this year. The expense of travel and the fatigue of travel would have been too much for them. My 70 year old parents would have really suffered walking up that hill and sitting in the shadeless amphitheatre. So it was kind of exraordinary to realize how many people's families will come in from out of town, state, country. I guess it didn't hit me until now--even though I went to a "national" Top 15 law school, more than half of the students and their families were from the same state. Many came from the surrounding counties. So now that I'm at a Top 10, it's kind of odd to realize how national and international my law school and university are.

It was nice to see all the families out. It was great seeing so many students walk with their families--at least 10 students carried their babies, ranging from newborns to 5 year olds. The pride they felt at being both lawyers and parents, and it almost felt like a sea change was coming in what people would expect from legal practice and for work/life balance. It was cute to hear a guy propose to his girlfriend as his name was being announced. It was a very joyous occasion, full of hope and celebration, responsibility and commitment--and I watched it all gladly from the sidelines.

My family was really great when I graduated--tons of pictures of the entire family, some of which were sent back to family in Vietnam. I realize now that's the great part of these rituals--they ceremonialize accomplishment, and let you celebrate such accomplishment in a very public way. And that's why family far and wide will travel to these ceremonies, even as far as from Greece or Brazil. I guess that's why I didn't feel like going through with it this year--I didn't have my family around to share in that. I was happier acting in that capacity for my friends. I took plenty of pictures for the Nice Neighbor (whose family I sat with) and for Favorite Russian Dude. I made sure that FRD had the full American graduation experience, yelling loudly (and embarassingly) when his name was called, and taking him out to a fabulous lunch afterwards at a suitable tony restaurant (where we toasted the occasion with appropriate celebratory libations).

I hope that all my international classmates had the ceremony they wanted. For many, it was their first such ceremony, as not every country marks the awarding of degrees with such "pomp and circumstance." For the U.K. educated students, the ceremony was decidedly less "ceremonious" than the ones we have modeled ours on (no rabbit-fur trimmed capes or kissing of some Archbishops ring)--the students entered with a reggae-calypso version of Pomp and Circumstance. But I hope that for all it was the quintessential American ceremony--just enough ritual to be familiar and respectful, but enough fun and idiosyncrasy to be true to our maverick American ways and Liberal College name.

Congratulations, all!


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