Marking passages

Glass graduated cylinder-50ml pl

If you’ve been around a science or medical laboratory, you have almost certainly dealt with a graduated cylinder, one of those ubiquitous devices marked off for measuring liquids. It is no coincidence that we use the word “graduation” to mark a passage from high school, from college, from graduate work. Graduation isn’t an ending; it’s simply a mark in the larger cylinder of life, though a significant one.

Yesterday¬†was graduation at Pellissippi State. I haven’t attended every single one in the going-on-24-years I’ve been there, but I have been to most of them. In recent years they strike me differently than in past years. Humans have a need to mark milestones, and this is a big milestone even for the folks who choose not to walk through the ceremony. When I got my master’s degree, I chose not to walk, thinking it wouldn’t be long before I completed my doctorate. In retrospect, I wish I had gone through the ceremony, since life circumstances are such that I almost certainly will never earn a degree any higher. But even for those who go on further, it’s worth marking the passage.

I was honored to read the names of some of the folks as they crossed the stage. Some of them had their own cheering sections, and I would have to wait to read the next name. Others had only one or two to applaud them, and a very few had none–although usually some in the audience would applaud late for a stranger rather than have silence for the passage.

Things never go exactly as planned. One stage party member, for instance, hung her heel in the ramp as we left, though hardly anyone noticed. The National Anthem singer was a last-minute fill-in–but that worked out great, because she was a former student of mine, and she knocked it out of the park, leaving us all simply going “Wow!”

Students texted on their phones as they walked to their seats. I didn’t see anyone texting while picking up a diploma, though for the first time a student stopped for a selfie with the college president as he got the document. (Our president later said someone dropped a pack of cigarettes when reaching for the diploma, another first.)

Many moments moved me to tears. Four empty seats in the front row of the faculty section honored the four faculty and staff members who died this year. I hope that trend does not continue.

I was the first reader, and when my colleague took over I was able to just sit on stage and watch each graduate as he or she took that walk signifying the completion of part of their journey. Some of them were somber, most smiling, some almost danced their way across the stage.

I don’t think I butchered any names this year. I remember last year a student with an Eastern European surname handed me his name card with no phonetic pronunciation help. I leaned away from the microphone and said, “How do you say that?”

“Just like it’s spelled,” he said.

Yesterday, everybody helped me out. I hope I said the names right. At least, I didn’t see anybody grimace.

Later, students sought out particular faculty and staff members to connect one more time in celebration of achievement. I will admit, it is very satisfying to have been a sort of Johnny Appleseed, to see the beginnings of a crop coming up, and to occasionally hear of continuing growth. I was fortunate enough to have a few seek me out, share with me their plans, their job prospects, their next educational rungs.

One former student sought me out after the event. He is now at his four-year transfer institution, close to getting his bachelor’s, and he wanted to tell me how much he had used what he learned from our speech class in his current classes. He said that he mostly made A’s on his oral reports and presentations, and teachers actually thanked him for being effective. His classmates, more often than not, stand at the front reading in a monotone from a piece of paper, never making eye contact.

“Didn’t they have to take a speech class?” he said. (Actually, there’s a good chance they didn’t–that particular university doesn’t require speech of every student, much to their detriment.)

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: a graduation is a beginning and an ending, a milestone, a mark. He graduated a couple of years ago, but he continues to mark progress, and self-awareness of his own learning process.

Every day is a graduation, a mark. I hope you mark yours somehow, and I hope those students found that marking yesterday was satisfying when they look back on it in years to come.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.