May 27th, 2011
Convocation can be embarrassing. I see the possibility at every session. This week we are celebrating the success of hundreds and hundreds of students in eight graduation ceremonies. Sitting on stage I get a really good close up of each and every one who crosses the boards to be hooded by the appropriate dean and then congratulated by the Chancellor. When I am doing the hooding of graduate students I am especially conscious of how exposed these students feel. Cameras are flashing, over a thousand people are in the audience watching, the video cameras are rolling for future broadcast, and all one can hear is the clickety click of heels across the floor of the stage. Their families in the audience hold their breaths as their progeny walk into the spotlight for a brief, important moment. Some of the hands I shake in that moment are as wet as sponges. The hoods they pass over to me are downright soggy in the places where they have been gripped so tightly for at least a half hour before show time.
Women crossing the floor have more reason than ever to feel anxious these days. Have you seen the height of their heels lately? Holy stiletto! I don’t know whether to be disapproving or envious, maybe a little of both. Copying the Lopez-Rihanna models of pop culture, these young women seem to be in a race to reach the top—the top of the room, that is. In the past few days I have seen more than a few pair of legs poured into 6” heels. That’s a lot of spike on which to be perching the rest of your corporeal frame. No wonder the steps these women take towards me are tentative, uncertain, sometimes even a little shaky. It’s one thing to parade around your living room in these things; it’s another to do so with a small world of people watching your feet.
To be fair, the men who walk across the stage are often equally nervous. Like the women, they fear falling or even fainting. The lights are hot, the anticipation is intense, and although they do not generally tend to wear anything higher than a 1 and ½ inch heel they feel extremely self-conscious. You have to admire the exhibitionists among them who screw up the courage to be different—either by skipping across the stage, as one brave young woman did this week, blood-red stilettos miraculously in place, or by pumping their fists into the air, as others do, for the benefit of their friends and families and, probably more to the point, for themselves.
Normally, our Chancellor, Rick Hillier, commands the cheery mood in the room, inviting a relaxed and happy manner. If anyone can order a crowd to get with the program, the retired General sure can. His absence at several sessions this week is palpable to those of us who welcome the way he works a hall and charms the students, each and every one. It’s just not quite the same without him. Today really proved that. He rocked the house.
Embarrassment and anxiety also attend to the honourary graduands, each of whom is invited to address convocation with the intent of offering advice to the newly minted degree earners. I have heard several of these speeches this week and many more through the years, and I can tell you that few clichés are ever left unsaid during these addresses. I suppose there are only so many ways you can say “be the best you can be,” or “follow your heart,” “be a good Newfoundlander,” and “be kind to your family.” But sometimes it is astonishing, even embarrassing, to see how such accomplished people can depend far too heavily on the platitudes of yesteryear. Convocation speeches that actually lift off the page and speak to the assembled are rare and profoundly welcomed.
It doesn’t get any more embarrassing for a university than what happened recently at the City University of New York. Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner had been nominated for an honourary degree. Kushner is the guy who brought us Angels in America, one of the best dramatic treatments of the AIDS crisis ever. It seems that a member of CUNY’s Board of Governors didn’t really like some things Kushner had written about the Israelis’ treatment of Palestinians and demanded that the honour not be bestowed. Kushner hasn’t really said anything President Obama hasn’t said about Israel, at least privately, but all it took was one angry man with a measure of power to call the whole thing off. Fortunately, the rest of the board came to their senses and just the other day named Kurshner a proud and deserving honourary degree holder. But what damage has been wrought. The whole mess ended up making CUNY look as if the place were being run by a bunch of thugs or bozos, and pretty much the rest of the free world declared it all a farce.
Memorial’s convocations have gone without such hitches so far. Yes, the graduating class is nervous, the heels are too high, and clichés choke the air, but it would take a lot more than all of that to undermine the mood of celebration in that hall. Congratulations to the freshly minted degree holders. Good luck in those new shoes.