June 7th, 2014
That’s what the room looked like from where I was sitting last week at convocation —second row, behind official representatives of the province and the Board of Regents. The good news is that second row status allows for picture-taking possibilities—discreetly, of course. The graduation ritual can be severe, almost like church. Solemnity is the usual order of the day. Picture-taking is definitely not encouraged. We have so many more successful graduate students these days and so we also have longer lines of expectant students, waiting to cross the floor to shake the hand of the Chancellor and receive their parchment. I attended all but two ceremonies. Wouldn’t you know that one of those was made memorable by a graduating student requesting a selfie with the Chancellor. Good for him, I say. Some colleagues were heard to be muttering afterwards that it was going to start a ‘dangerous trend.’ Yes, let’s channel our fears into inconsequential matters, why don’t we? I applaud the student who snapped himself with our most senior university figure. A little disruption lightens the mood and probably lifted some audience members out of their deep slumbers.
I love convocation because it is the pinnacle of a student’s journey through a demanding graduate program. It’s all about happy, accomplished people beaming with self-satisfaction and pride. But there are ironies here. Generally, the seasoned honourary graduands in their convocation addresses urge the newly-minted-degree holders to follow their hearts, step out into the world and make a difference—work for change, be leaders, transform the world. But the ritual itself, as all rituals are by definition, operates on a principle of sameness. Everyone wears a black robe and mortar board; everyone is dressed the same, looks the same, behaves the same. It’s an oxymoron, this celebration of homogeneity. Who among this flock will, indeed, make a difference? Hard to say just by the looks of it.
Except for the shoes, of course. Fortunately, there is no dress code—yet–for footwear, and so one sees an astonishing variety of choices, particularly female choices, on those black-robed figures. I took a few snaps with my iPhone of some amazingly shod creatures, as many as I could without looking like a fetishist, and tweeted them out—part amusement, part distraction. Obviously some graduates took the whole shoe thing much more seriously than others. The traditional fashionista in me could only wonder about the choice of flip flops. People–you are wearing a black robe, marking a medieval, ceremonial, significant moment of transition into a peer group of accomplished professionals and you are wearing flip flops? Did your mother let you go out like that or were you being rebellious? For that matter, I can’t understand the women who wear open-toed flat sandals on stage. Okay, how about open-toed anything? Really? With your graduation gown and mortar board? Would you wear gladiator sandals to a job interview? If the answer is yes then rush yourself to a manual on job etiquette. You’re not going to make a difference in the world wearing the wrong footwear. It’s a time-honoured fact.
I worry a bit about the unnaturally high sparkly spikes some women were wearing. Six-inch heels are our culture’s version of Chinese foot binding. Think you’d ever see a man wearing heels like that? They know better. You can’t really walk in those things for long. Indeed, more than few graduates teetered precariously atop their stilettoes as they inched across the floor to be hooded on stage. I feared one or two of them would simply topple over into the front row.
I did admire the young woman who was wearing a funky short dress under her robe. She had chosen silver high-top sneakers for her footwear, a deliberate gesture of difference that rocked. It’s not as if she reached for the first thing in her closet. She considered the options and marked her individuality.
As for the men’s choices, there were a few sloppy sandal-wearing graduates in the crowd but most opted for brown or black lace-ups and some more polished than others. Makes you wonder, again, what some of these guys would choose for a job interview. And makes me want to predict who is going to thrive in their careers based on the way they asserted themselves in a sea of sameness. I bet that guy who took the selfie is going places, don’t you think?