It did not become real for me, I think, until that morning. It’s a moment you think about a lot until the very moment you arrive, and then your stomach is in knots and your mouth is dry. No matter how neat and orderly your plans are, no matter how much you think you control time, in that moment, your mind goes blank. And you ask yourself: What’s next?
My college graduation itself turned out to be strange and, in some ways, unremarkable. The morning was overcast and unusually humid, which was, of course, a bad omen for my curls. At the time, I was seeing some idiot guy one of my idiot guy friends had introduced me to; and because he was older than me, deeply insecure, and going through his own quarter-life crisis, he’d called me up drunk at 3am — just a few hours earlier — to project all of this on me on my graduation day.
I don’t remember what was said. I do remember telling him to go fuck himself; dozing off, somehow, shortly after for a few hours; and waking up as the sun was rising. My carefully ironed gown hung on the door of the closet. I remember the cords — one for Summa cum Laude, one for College honors — and the bright purple sash.
I worked for this.
As far as I was concerned, this was accomplishment because it was an accomplishment I wasn’t supposed to enjoy. I had gone to prep school, and when my first choice college didn’t work out, I resigned myself to a state college. This, of course, was not just taboo, nor was it simply a cardinal sin: it was the cardinal sin. It signaled that I had squandered the opportunity of a lifetime, hadn’t worked hard enough, hadn’t shrewdly navigated the college process the way an ambitious, non-trust fund, ambiguously brown kid from the wrong side of town should have.
I don’t think it’s projecting to say I think I was supposed to be ashamed.
I was told I’d hate going to a state school. That I was smarter and better prepared than my peers; that I’d be bored; that I’d transfer, anyway, to a “real” college.
And, probably because God has a sense of humor, none of that happened. My college experience was transformative. On the morning of graduation, I remember shuffling uncomfortably in the itchy gown, touching the bobby pins holding the mortar board in place, straightening my cords, the purple sash. So, I had done it. And as the sun broke through the clouds, lifting the uncharacteristic humidity, I remember the first sharp twinge of unease.
So, what’s next?
I started grad school that fall; and ten days later, dropped out. I moved to a big city, and I moved back. I started jobs paying more money than I could have imagined, and I quit. I dated (more of) the wrong guys, and I dumped them. At many of these junctures, I remembered my graduation day with a twinge of sadness — as if these failures had meant I had failed. As if walking across the stage, somehow, was mystically supposed to have changed everything.
Five years later to the day, I’m writing this reflection because, regardless how cynical I’ve become, I hold that morning close to my heart. I’ve struggled enormously finding my place in the world. I write this because that morning did not in fact change everything, but in some ways, it changed me. It’s taken me five years to understand that it was magic because I say so.
I’ve finally settled into a routine. I enjoy what I do for a living. I’m surrounded by good people. Most importantly, I know what works for me, and I’ve learned how to walk away from what doesn’t. I no longer hold myself responsible for figuring out everything. I no longer hold myself to account for other people’s shame.
And as it were, five years later, my younger brother’s college graduation is the very same weekend. It’s a moment I’ve thought about a lot since the late summer day he left home, the summer after I finished undergrad. It feels like a few weekends ago, and somehow, like another lifetime.
I’ve learned that what matters is not the chronology, but the synchronicity. Time is not linear, and if you’re paying attention, it will come back around to show you what you missed: when my brother came home last week, he told me he wants to wear my sash.
But…don’t you have one from your school?
No, he said. This is more important.
I couldn’t imagine a higher honor.