Graduation Day

A close friend’s mother told me once that graduation day would be one of the happiest, most exciting days of my life – next to my wedding day and the birth of my children. I’m now two times as old as I was when she made that statement. And I understand now, more than ever, how right she was.

Saturday I took the walk across the university’s commencement stage, officially commemorating the completion of my master’s degree.

I will consider it fully official and complete in a few more weeks when I actually receive my diploma. During commencement, the university only hands graduates a diploma cover, without the diploma actually inside because the registrar still has to verify final grades and degree completion.

Leading up to Saturday and in the hours since, I’ve been basking in the glow of congratulations from family, friends and colleagues, and a whole lot of Facebook love. I drew shout-outs at Wednesday’s end-of-the-year celebration for our campus ministry group, at a university board meeting Friday and then from the university president during his commencement address as well as a mention of congratulations during church yesterday morning. When I returned to my office from the board meeting Friday afternoon, a couple of my coworkers surprised me with a cake and balloons.

This feeling could not be sweeter. And I’m holding my head a little higher today with my heightened status.

* * *

Good feelings aside, some other things during the run-up to the whole shebang Saturday added to the ride. Which was fitting, considering all the ups and downs woven into this two-year journey of mine.

Phoebe and I were home together Monday because she didn’t have school, and we had a wonderful time playing and hanging out together. She accompanied me on some morning errands. We played “grocery store.” And she played in the sprinkler while I did some work in our back yard. It was 80 degrees and sunny, after all.

Tuesday, I returned to work, and Phoebe returned to school. … But when I arrived home Tuesday evening, Phoebe was curled up on the couch and burning up. It was the beginning of a long night as Phoebe – in addition to Faye, who consistently wakes up at least a couple times a night anyway – was restless and crying out in discomfort throughout the night.

So I stayed home again with Phoebe Wednesday morning before I had to get back to campus for meetings, and Kates relieved me for the afternoon. Kates took Phoebe to the clinic Wednesday afternoon, but the nurse practitioner couldn’t diagnose anything more than a virus and prescribed an antibiotic. Our suspicions, based on Phoebe’s symptoms and the notice posted at Faye’s daycare – where Phoebe touches everything during the afternoon pickup routine – are that she came down with strep throat. … Her fever peaked at almost 101 Wednesday afternoon, and that meant she had to stay home from school Thursday, too.

So I stayed home with Phoebe Thursday, and by the early afternoon she appeared to be returning to her usual self. I thought we’d be returning to our normal routine Friday, easy.

Not so fast. Thursday night I went out for drinks with my graduate school cohort, and when I came home, Kates greeted me with the news that Phoebe had vomited, still had a fever and would, therefore, be staying home from school again Friday. … That sent me to my office late Thursday night to take care of some things I needed to get prepare for the morning. Fun.

Friday, Kates and I split the day with Phoebe again. I took the morning duty, and Kates came home for the afternoon so I could attend the university board meeting.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mother Nature can’t seem to make up her mind and get on with spring. As the week began, even after our gorgeous weekend, forecasts showed a major temperature drop during the second half of the week and the “s” word was being thrown around, with calls for a 90 percent chance. … Worse yet, the weather people were predicting it would last through Saturday’s commencement festivities.

Not cool, Mother Nature. Not cool.

I hoped and prayed it wouldn’t happen. I must have been checking my Weather Channel app at least once an hour to look for any changes in the forecast.

Worst of all, the brunt of the storm was forecast for Thursday – the day my parents planned to drive down from Wisconsin to join us for the weekend. Kates and I knew if there was any solid chance of bad weather, they wouldn’t be driving.

So it was no surprise when my phone rang Wednesday evening, and my dad broke the news that they had decided not to come.

I held out hope that the forecast wouldn’t hold true. But it did, and Thursday morning we woke up to this …

* * *

Nothing could contain our excitement – especially mine – when we awoke Saturday morning. Not even the unseasonably cold and gray weather for a May commencement ceremony.

After passing my research presentation a couple weeks ago, our household countdown to the end of “my work” transitioned to a two-week countdown to the graduation ceremony. … As Phoebe and I sat at the breakfast table this morning, she looked at me, between mouthfuls of cereal, and said, “Daddy, guess what!? Today’s the big day!”

As I got myself ready, it almost had the feeling of our wedding day. I’d been waiting and imagining this day for two years, and it signified a new chapter in my life …

I began playing one of my music playlists on my iPhone, and it was as if even it knew the significance of the day. In one sequence, it ran off John Parr's “St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion),” U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Boston’s “Don’t Look Back.” Phoebe and I danced around the bedroom as I buttoned my shirt and tied my necktie. Then we paraded down the stairs and through the kitchen, waving our hands and pumping our fists.

By 9 a.m., we were loading up the car and heading down the street to the arena for the commencement ceremony. I always have a VIP parking spot reserved for me on commencement day because of my media relations responsibilities during the day, but I rarely use it. This time, however, with the family in tow and me actually participating in the ceremony, having that parking luxury worked well; we didn’t have to fight all of the other parking traffic, and we didn’t have to walk far in the chilly, rainy weather.

* * *

Inside the arena, I left Kates and the girls to find their seats, and I headed for the staging area. Here now begins, what was arguably the most stressful part of my day …

Two of my office mates – a photographer and graphic designer – hatched a plan to spell B-E-A-R-C-A-T-S on a series of mortar boards, bookended with our iconic university logo. I volunteered my graduate cohort and they loved the idea. If our plan worked the way we envisioned, our photographer would capture a photo with our decorated caps among a sea of graduates.

So Saturday morning I carried a box of 11 decorated mortar boards to the staging area and handed them out to my cohort as each member arrived. On my way, I stopped in the arena to count out the number of chairs in a single row – there were 18 seats – to account for where our group had to position itself in order for us to be seated in the same row. Fortunately, our designer also had staked out the arena setup Friday afternoon and realized we needed to process into the arena in reverse order for our spelling to appear correctly to the crowd.

The first obstacle arose in finding a place in the line of graduates for our cohort to insert itself. To capture the perfect photo, we wanted to be close to the middle of the seating. But other graduate cohorts wanted to sit together as well – forcing us to not only find a place in the line where we could ensure all 10 of us would be seated in the same row but a break in the line between two cohorts.

Just when I thought I found a good spot for us to step into the line, additional graduates jumped into the line. I must have counted the people in the line and calculated the number of rows at least a dozen times – enough times that some people who had no idea what was going on started to give me some really weird looks.

Finally, the line started moving toward the arena. A couple more graduates joined the line in front of us, and it was too late. There was nothing I could do but hope it worked out when we arrived at our seats.

It did. We fit into the row, with the final piece of our puzzle taking the final seat in the row. I breathed a sigh of relief as my friend Angel leaned over and said to me, “Your job is safe today.”

* * *

I’ve said for years that commencement day is one of my favorite days at the university, but the fact that I was participating Saturday upped the thrill.

As the graduates, we entered the arena and processed through a line of faculty members – now my colleagues and friends. I reached out to several of them to shake hands as we passed. I missed Kates and the girls sitting just past the line of faculty but caught a glimpse of them on the big screen as we continued toward the graduates’ seating area.

I’ve helped plan and observed enough graduate ceremonies at the university now that I can recite the routine without looking at the printed program. The president greeted the crowd and offered some statistics about this year’s graduating class – at 708 strong it was a record for the school. Then, there’s a heart-warming tribute video about the university featuring reflections of some of the graduating students, which never fails to bring a smile to my face and send chills down my spine.

Here was my view of the proceedings ...

Eventually, the featured speaker steps to the podium – this year’s speaker was a leading student engagement officer from a university in the United Kingdom. He opened his address by relaying two bits of advice he received while preparing his remarks: keep it brief and don’t worry too much because people will simply enjoy listening to his English accent. When finished, he'd given a wonderful and entertaining address.

And finally, it was time for the conferral of degrees. Adding to the ceremony's special for me was that the graduate school was paired with the college of business and professional studies. Two other academic colleges shared the afternoon ceremony, but the college of business and professional studies was my home base as an undergraduate student, and it continues to be an area with which I work closely and know many students.

I crossed the stage behind students I’ve had the joy of mentoring, working with and knowing these last few years. Philip, Kacie, Kate, Kari, Alex, Amanda, Chloe, Erin, Lindsay, Denise, Carl, Adil, Ash and Megan, to name a few. Most of these students were freshmen when I arrived on campus 3 ½ years ago now, and I’ve had the chance to watch their college careers unfold. They’re a special group.

Soon I followed the procession behind the stage, up a ramp and then to the front of the stage to wait for my name to be called. Amanda, a professor who also has become a friend, read my name with a smile. I stepped in front of the dean of the graduate school to the sound of cheers from friends in the crowd. He wrapped my master’s hood around my neck and shoulders, chatting the whole time and offering words of congratulations. Then I stepped to the provost, who shook my hand, handed my diploma cover to me and complimented me on our cohort’s decorated hats. At the end of the stage stood the university president, ready to greet me. We embraced in a hug, posed for the obligatory picture and he reminded me that I’ll be able to watch more baseball during my free time.

To my surprise, as I walked down the ramp from the stage, Phoebe appeared and ran toward me, shouting “Daddy!” before hugging my leg. Unknown to me, our friend Gina, who directs the commencement ceremony, spotted Kates and the girls in their seats and invited them to the backstage area for an improved, more private view of the ceremony.

I gave Phoebe a hug and sent her back to her backstage seat before returning to my seat with the graduates. But then as the ceremony was ending and the graduates were readying to process out of the arena, Phoebe weaved her way into our seating area to find me. It was utterly adorable and unforgettable as she appeared, hugged my leg again and took my hand to walk out of the arena with me and the other graduates.

Phoebe stayed with me as I wound my way through the crowds in the arena hallways and reunited with my cohort for some group photos and more congratulatory hugs with friends, colleagues and faculty members. Soon I found Kates and Faye back in the arena for some family photos.

By the time we left the campus and returned home it was about 12:30 p.m. That left enough time for me to grab a snack and refresh before heading back to campus to cover the afternoon ceremony. … When I arrived back at the arena and entered the backstage hallway, I found our commencement staff taking a lunch break. Without skipping a beat, I was back to work, managing the media who were covering the afternoon ceremony and greeting and assisting the graduates as they arrived.

I took my usual perch in the arena press box for the afternoon ceremony and followed the program, which was much the same as the morning. … By 4:30 p.m. it was all over. I walked home and slipped into our house to find everyone curled up, asleep on the living room couches.

In the meantime, I tried to figure out what to do next. I’m still getting used to this new found freedom.

As we put the girls to bed last night, Kates appropriately pulled out “Oh, the Places You'll Go!” for a bedtime story. … Our copy of it was given to me on my high school graduation day, half a lifetime ago.

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