Graduation Day; Or, Onward and Upward

A version of this piece also appeared in The Houston Chronicle in the Gray Matters section on 15 December 2014.

It’s 63 degrees in December, and I am flying down the highway to Houston Baptist University.  I have left early, but I am still running late because I didn’t count on all the closed ramps around Clear Lake.  I am in a hurry because I will be reading the names of the graduates for the first ceremony that starts at 9 am.  That is, if I make it. Advice-to-graduates

I start to wonder what my explanation will sound like if I can’t make up the time on Beltway 8.  I start to think of all the people who might wonder where I am, what I am doing, and why I am late.  I start to feel a little sick, and I realize I don’t have the cell phone number of Linda Clark, the Provost’s Administrative Super Woman, who seems to handle everything with perfect ease. She is the easiest person to work with in the world, and I hate the thought of letting her down. For heaven’s sakes, we are a team at graduation!  I can’t just not show up! This isn’t like missing a class–there isn’t another one to make up.  Then I realize everyone–President Sloan, Provost Reynolds, the board of trustees, donors–will know that I have been unable to fulfill the one requirement I have today:  showing up.

It’s not like they are going to hold the ceremony for me–I mean I am not Lindsay Lohan. But I am starting to understand what she might feel like sometimes, with her ridiculous tardiness and lame excuses. Oh, Lindsay:  this is no way to live.

All I want to do is get on 45, but all I see are red tail lights, feeder road, and despair.

I think vaguely of crying, but that will mess up my makeup, and in Texas, that is a no-go, even if you are not on that stage reading names.  Plus, I went to Baylor, and every Baylor girl knows that you need to be chipper in life even if things seem like a disaster. I turn on Taylor Swift who tells me to “Shake it Off,” and she repeats it so many times, I decide that is exactly what I will do, no matter what.  She sings: “It’s like I got this music/In my mind/Saying, “It’s gonna be alright.”  I don’t think she went to Baylor, but she is definitely qualified.

But then something happens.  I get through the last fifteen minute red light, and I see the sign for Beltway 8.  I admit it, I speed, but there is hardly any traffic so I don’t feel like I am endangering all the cars that would typically be around me on a weekday.  I fly through the tolls:  EZ pass is the best money I have ever spent.  I feel better, like there is hope.  I have a quiver of worry when I remember that my name is printed in the program. Wow.  Taylor Swift keeps singing, tells some guy that she has a “Blank Space” where she will write in his name, and I can’t help but wish there was a blank space by the dotted line on that program following “Presentation of Degrees.”  But there is not. Someone has already printed “Doni Wilson,” and I am so hoping that Doni Wilson can manage to show up.

I turn on Fondren, head toward Belin Chapel and the Joella and Stewart Morris Cultural Arts Center.  I am going to make it–barely, but I can’t dwell on that because I have a robe and a hood and Aquanet and lip gloss to put on, and there are no red lights to stop me.  I am a Baylor graduate, and I will smile as I whip into the Ladies Room and get it together. I see Linda–get backstage, review the names one more time.  It is not lost on me that it is some kind of miracle that I made it in time.

Sometimes, no matter how many times you are denied entrance onto the main artery of life, you make it anyway.

Sometimes, it just takes a little longer than you thought.

While waiting at one of those red lights, a stone’s throw from Grace Church on I-45, I realize that some of my students might have had moments when college felt exactly like this–one impediment after another, each paper or project a road block to them moving onto their own personal highway, the places they really want to go, while checking those many requirements off of their degree plans.  Two of my students did not graduate this term–things came up, papers weren’t written.  But hey, they will graduate, just in May instead of December.  They are just sitting on the feeder road, looking at a red light.  But I want to tell them that even though that light looks like it will never turn green, and that your car clock will continue to mock you while you wish for time to stand still so you can catch up on whatever you need to do, that it will change, and you will move forward, and that sometimes, a delay is just a delay, but not the end of the world, or even the end of the road.

Most of the students graduate just fine, and when I think of all the distractions and interruptions that tempt them from their work, it really makes me marvel.  They are really going places.  They don’t even know how thrilling things might be.  That is the gift of finishing what you started:  you know, deep down, that you can start something new, and you will finish it, because you have done that before.

When I read the names, it is emotional at times.  It is hard not to think about all the hard work put into getting a degree.  I always say “Summa Cum Laude,” “Magna Cum Laude,” and “Cum Laude” with a little more force, a little more emphasis, because I think those students really deserve it–I don’t want those words swallowed on the stage.  I wink at a few of the students that I have taught many times and know well–it is the only way for them to know how proud I am of them without breaking the momentum of the ceremony.  They look so grown up to me.  They look so happy to be in this moment.

After I read the names, the faculty leaves in a line for the recessional.  Some of them I have known for a very long time.  We have seen a lot of changes at the university: beautiful fountains have been built with flowers that bloom even in December, new leaders have come, we now have the excitement of football.  We have an organ in Belin Chapel that is so enormous you can only look up and marvel at it.  We have a picture of “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” by Van Dyck hanging in a gallery near Marc Chagall’s “Esquisse Pour L’Exode,” Albert Bierstadt’s “The Matterhorn”–all brought to the university within the last few years.  Nothing stays the same, not even ourselves.

After the ceremony, there is a brunch.  Dr. Sloan thanks everyone, wishes us a Merry Christmas.  The chairman of the Board of Trustees, Ray L. Cox Jr., asks if anyone is sitting with me, and although I know he has been such a strong supporter of the university for years, this is the first time I have really been able to talk to him.  We are chatting, and my colleague Rhonda Furr joins us.  She asks him how he is, holds his hand.

Then something happens.  Ray tells me the most amazing story.   Years ago he had mouth cancer.  He is a lawyer, has his own firm.  They had to remove a part of his tongue.  He said that was hard, but that he was overwhelmed with all of the outpouring of support and prayers he had received.  Yes, it was something that he didn’t expect to happen, but then things got better–a lot better, and he was cancer free.

For eight years.

Then, something wasn’t right.  There was more cancer–in the jaw.  Part of it had to be removed–jaw, teeth, mouth.  It was very difficult surgery–the hardest kind to do.  But Ray wasn’t focusing on how shocking and challenging it was to face cancer again. He didn’t even complain about it.  I won’t kid you–I wanted to cry.  Part of me thought he had been through enough–that this was too much, too much of  a detour or interruption in the life of a kind and generous person.

Instead, he told me how thankful he was that the doctors at M. D. Anderson could replace his jaw with part of his tibia.  He told me how supportive everyone had been, how Houston was the best place in the world for cancer treatment, and he was in the right place at the right time.  When I looked at him while he was talking, his face looked perfect to me.  You would never guess that his jaw had been reconstructed.

He was entirely devoid of self-pity.  He said the word “thankful” many times.  You can’t learn this in any class.  But you can learn it if you see it–but there is no test.  You just have to remember it because there is no way to forget it.

I tell him that what he is telling me is a miracle, and we talk about how even a century ago it would have been impossible to deal with this kind of cancer in this way.  Maybe even ten years ago that would  also be true. His recovery was three months.  It was very hard.  I marvel when he tells me he has to have some more surgery in February to take care of some tissue, but instead of lamenting it, he is happy that it will be relatively minor compared to his previous surgeries.

I can’t help it: I start to tear up. After hearing this, let’s face it: I have no problems.  Even being late for an event seems comically trivial to me now.  Someone else would have read the names, I am sure they would have forgiven me, and no lives would have been lost.  My worries were not even worth the name.  It is always humbling when you can meet someone new to admire, someone who makes you want to be a better person, lifts you out of the pettiness and triviality that tempts us at every turn, makes you think that if something difficult happens to you, you have a better template for handling it than the one you would have employed.

I want to tell my students that graduation is a great day, but I hate to break it to them: it isn’t really “over,” there is just the next big thing.  It might be something full of joy and excitement, it might be difficult and painful.  But the thing about completing something is that you can practice putting something behind you, because who knows what you might be needed for?

You might need to tell someone your story, remind them of everything that is worth caring about, be the walking example of being grateful when it would be so easy to sink into despair.  You might just need to keep moving.  Don’t worry about those red lights, there will always be some, but they will change.  They always do.

7 responses

  1. I always find a nugget in your essays that gives me pause, makes me think and relate instead of just read and go. Thank you for this. You did a fine job today and I am sorry I was unable to locate you for a quick hello. Merry Christmas!

  2. You have become one of my favorite essayists, Doni. I always learn something new as I read: something new about you, about myself, about all of us. You find the universal meaning in personal experience, which allows those of us lucky enough to be your audience a chance to take your journeys of discovery with you. “Nothing stays the same, not even ourselves” may have been said before, but not in such a beautiful way. Thank you!

  3. Doni,

    First, after that genuinely stressful drive to HBU, you presented a professional, calm, and AWESOME delivery! Second, you are ALWAYS an absolute delight to work with!!

    Yes, life will present our graduates lots of roadblocks, rude drivers, and stress in general. Here’s hoping they will learn to handle those annoyances by watching those mentors like you who rise to any occasion as needed!

    YOU were AWESOME today!!

    🙂 Linda

  4. I am Ray’s sister. In a short visit, you perceived the essence of Ray and his experience. It is good to know, and not surprising, that the impact of a brief encounter with Ray is as powerful as the blessing of knowing him as my brother. Thank you for sharing your impressions, the impact, and the importance of telling our stories.

  5. Wow! You constantly amaze me! How truthful, meaningful, inspiring and full of insightful comparisons. You must write a book called Life Is Just How You Take It. Merry Christmas, Doni. You’ve given me the gift of renewed humbleness. Nothing is worth worry. We tell our loved ones that, but we should walk the talk.

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