Graduation Day: Five Stories About Commencement

This is a picture of me and my great friend Shannon on our graduation day in 2012. She is my first and last; that is, we were roommates our freshman year and our senior year. There are many things I don’t miss about my four years in higher ed, but living amongst my closest friends isn’t one of them. If I could go back to any moment in my life, I think I would choose walking into the student union and seeing a table of my friends, laughing and working.

College was brutal. I almost didn’t finish. My friends gave meaning to my pain. If that sounds dramatic, that’s because it was. College is nothing if not dramatic, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. For four years, my universe was a bucolic, neoclassical (and neoconservative) postage stamp in a part of the country I didn’t know existed until I moved there. Commencement was a blur, with a dull speaker and many, many photos. I wanted to sleep for a month and forget about the angst of my final semester.

What no one tells you about graduating is that it’s impossible to say goodbye, in both good and terrible ways. I have seen most of my college friends get married. We have vacationed together. Sometimes we ended up in the same workplace. We still exchange Christmas gifts and see each other regularly. That is the good. I still have nightmares about the bad—classic scenes of running late, getting lost, messing up on a final exam. These dreams so closely mirror my actual memories that my subconscious can’t differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t—at least, that’s my working theory. I am weighing fear against joy. The scale tips one way, then the other.

Commencement is fear and joy. Joy: You don’t have to do homework anymore. Fear: You need a job. But you got this, I promise. I promise, because I am doing it too, as hard as it is. If your commencement speaker disappoints, you can read these beautiful addresses from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ursula K. LeGuin and Joy Ladin. Just hide your phone under your robe.

1. “How the FBI Tried to Block Martin Luther King’s Commencement Speech.” (Martin Dobrow, The Atlantic, June 2014)

In the midst of imprisonment, wiretaps and nonviolent protests, Martin Luther King, Jr. has to travel over 1,000 miles to give a contested commencement speech in western Massachusetts.

2. “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Commencement Speech at UPenn.” (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Heat Steet, May 2016)

The creator of the hit musical Hamilton on the high stakes in the stories of our lives.

3. “Who Gets to Graduate?” (Paul Tough, The New York Times Magazine, May 2014)

“Whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t.” The University of Texas wants to reverse this trend, and a chemistry professor and psychology researcher may have the answer.

4. “Becoming the People We Wish We Were: An Address to the Graduating Students of Harvey Milk High School.” (Joy Ladin, HuffPost Queer Voices, July 2015)

“What can I say to a room full of superheroes?” Joy Ladin is the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish university. This is her stirring address to the students of Harvey Milk High School, which is dedicated to the at-risk LGBTQ youth of New York City.

5. “A Left-Handed Commencement Address.” (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1983)

Subversive, feminist, powerful—author Ursula K. LeGuin does not hold back. I want to paint this commencement speech on the walls of my apartment.

And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.