Graduation is a long train ride with many stops along the way. First, there is kindergarten. Next, you have elementary school. Then there is middle school. From middle school one leaps to high school. When I was coming along on this train ride, there was also a stop called junior high school. I lost track of a lot of friends at the high school stop. Nevertheless, college comes along. There is a possible junior college graduation after two years. There is the four year graduation after four or five years of college. Do not forget the Master’s Degree. Do not forget the Ph.D. There are also graduations from law school, medical school, and business school. Ironically, after all these stops, some graduates go back and find other ways to graduate.
The commencement season is once again upon us. Families are making long distant treks to see their loved ones take a few final steps across a stage. Families are proud to see their loved ones march. Across the country, there is an assortment of colors that rest upon the basic black gown. Tassels swing in the wind like wind chimes. The building blocks have all been put into place by those who wear the mortar boards. Professors stroll willingly and unwillingly to the musical processions. Family members tap one another on the shoulder as they smile wondering what all those funny looking caps mean. In short, those funny looking caps mean that the wearer was once in the same shoes as your loved ones. Also, believe it or not, some of your loved ones will don one of these silly caps one day. All it will take are just a few more train stops.
The graduates are to be commended. An education is not easy. It seems that getting an education becomes more difficult with each passing year. Yet, I think about the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges. I think about the all black elementary school I attended. I think about the integrated high school and the annual race riot that occurred just like the prom. It makes me wonder why an education is so difficult today. According to news reports, parents are upset about testing. Some are perplexed about which restroom to use. When I came along the principal could paddle a student on the behind. That cannot happen today. Yet, schools are having a tough time. Public school budgets are slashed. Social media make everything everyday everywhere. Sometimes it seems that no one has time for an education anymore. This particularly the case when earning money becomes the top priority. We even have entrepreneurs telling young people to skip college and simply come up with a good idea that will sale. It can even be a bad idea just along as it sells. The Donald Trump run for the presidency is a good example as to why we should be wary of such advice. Moreover, you even have people advocating for teachers to be armed in school. Just look what Columbine and Sandy Hook have done. Just look what metal detectors in public schools have done. Just look at what the shooters have done. Now, step back and take a look at what we are doing in response. This is my special ode to those who started this journey but will never graduate. From my window I stare back wishing they were here. I wanted to know that they would walk across that stage. There are certain words never to be spoken such as congratulations Trayvon; congratulations Jordan Davis; or congratulations to you too, Michael.
My mother was present each time I walked across the stage from junior high school all the way to receiving my doctorate. Every once in a while I get out the old photo albums just to see those old pictures. I have also taken my share of pictures of some of my students who have graduated. You should see the pride in the smiles of their friends, parents, and other family members. Some of the commencement speeches have been memorable. Some were distant words spoken by distant people. I realized a human was speaking but I just could not make out what they were saying. Perhaps if I could have afforded a front row seat, I would have been able to hear what they were saying. On the other hand, those who sat on the front row could not tell what was said either. It pains me to say that I have been that speaker once or twice. It was such an honor for me to speak. I wonder if anyone will remember.
Graduation and commencement are used interchangeably, yet they are very different. Strangely enough, you two things happening simultaneously within the context of one event. Graduation and commencement invite a great debate. In one sense something is ending. In another sense, something is beginning. Its use to confuse me. How could I be ending and beginning at the same time? At what point does water cease and ice begin? Are the cocoon and the butterfly two different life forms shared by one life? Which should I choose to call it? I graduated. They are graduating. Congratulations on your achievement. You finished what you started. Now the time has come to begin your life. It sounds strange does it not? If I am just beginning, what was I just doing before I got this piece of paper? Was not that life too? This is why some graduates worry at the end of college. They worry about what is next. These few years were very good to them. Yet, they cannot stay here. They have to move on. As a professor, I think I have cheated fate a little bit. I can continually ride the train without getting off. Irrespective of all those graduations and commencements, I am still here. I have seen thousands of students walk across that stage. I have and continue to congratulate them all. Congratulations to the class of 2016!
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”