Last week I again had the chance to participate in what is one of my favorite professional duties. It also happens to be one of the most frustrating. Graduation. I love graduation ceremonies and I will admit that I tear up at every single one. What’s not to love? It’s the one day in an academic career when everyone is happy—parents, students, and faculty.
Since I started teaching, I have had the chance to participate in roughly 18 graduation ceremonies. In all that time, I never seen a ceremony disrupted by a student. This year two students, one male and one female, decided that moment after shaking hands with everyone on stage was the appropriate time for Tebowing. In both cases, their self-conscious silliness was mostly ignored.
This fall’s ceremony was disrupted several times by parents and family members. In every ceremony, the attendees are instructed twice to please hold their applause and cheers until after everyone’s name is called. Families are told that every one present is there to hear the name of one person, and everyone present deserves to be able to hear that one name be read as that student crosses the stage. It shouldn’t require an advanced degree to understand that if you’re blowing an air horn (and it does happen with dismaying frequency), no one is going to be able to hear the name being read at the same time. For the first 50 names, more or less, everyone behaves appropriately. Then one family member decides that their special snowflake is far too special for their family to be held to the same standards as everyone else, so they yell and scream when that snowflake’s name is called. A few minutes will pass and some other family will decide their snowflake is far MORE special, so they yell and scream and clap. Sooner or later, someone breaks out the air horn.
This happens at every ceremony. Most of the time, it’s only half a dozen families or so who think their student is the most special snowflake in the blizzard. Occasionally, it happens frequently enough that the nomenclature or the provost feels compelled to scold the crowd and again ask that they not prevent other families from hearing the name of their student. This time, both the nomenclature and provost had to scold the crowd several times, with increasing irritation. At one point the rest of the crowd was so disgusted with the blatant disregard for the several hundred other graduates that they broke into applause after one scolding. You have to know you’ve really crossed some social boundary when a few thousand people are applauding you being publicly scolded.
This annoys me every year, but it was particularly galling this year. Unless you live under a rock or on a deserted island in the Pacific ocean, you have at least some vague notion of the events that have plagued Penn State this fall. I don’t wish to minimize the trauma to everyone involved by oversimplifying the case, but three men are currently awaiting trial, several more have had their careers either ended or irrevocably disrupted, and an entire community had been turned on its head because at least three people decided the rules did not apply to them. Apparently, and sadly for all of us, some people in the PSU family have not learned from this lesson. You would think that any one in any way connected with the university might be particularly sensitive to playing by the rules, doing the right thing, and looking out for the other people around you. It makes me unspeakably sad and unsettled to discover that it’s largely the parents who chose to do otherwise. We often wonder why it is that so many young people seem to feel that there are no consequences for their behavior and that the rules don’t apply to them. We have no business being shocked by this; they are only following the example they have been taught.
In all fairness, even this fall it was only a small percentage of families who behaved badly. Most smiled and waved quietly as their student crossed the stage and then cheered their hearts out when the last name had been called. After the last student had crossed the stage, several yelled out from various points “WE ARE…”and everyone—administrators, faculty, students, and families thundered back “PENN STATE!” It was a fun and proud moment, but not as proud as the one that came at the end of the ceremony. Just before the administrators and faculty process back out of the hall, the entire crowd is asked to sing the Alma Mater. In most ceremonies, the students begin singing proudly “For the glory of Old State…” and then peter out from there, humming along and leaving the faculty and the alumni in the crowd to carry the song to its end. This year, to my surprise and delight, the students sang with earnest through the first three verses. The real moment of pride, though, came at the beginning of the last verse when the singing from the students swelled considerably.* I hope their families noticed, too, and decide to follow their example.
*For the non-PSU folks, the last verse begins with these two lines:
"May no act of ours bring shame,
To one heart that loves thy name..."