Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cap and Gown Season

As Saul was leaving for school today, he asked me if I would please hang up his academic regalia, which rested, neatly folded, in a rather elaborately designed, pocketed, clear plastic bag, on our dining room table. “Oh,” I said, “I guess it needs to be ironed.” I had been embarrassed in the past that he and my kids had looked shabby compared to others who either had the foresight, had loving relatives with the foresight, or had enough O.C.D. about their sartorial habits to take the neatly folded gowns out of the bag before the actual graduation, and iron out the sharp creases the material accumulated from laying folded. In our defense, I would say that many others looked far worse at graduation and appeared to have removed the items from the bag and left them for the dog or cat to bed down on before actually donning them for the ceremony. Saul told me I need not worry about ironing the gown, that no one actually did that anymore, and that letting the wrinkles “hang out” would be sufficient.

After he left, I dutifully found a hanger, figured out which parts of the plastic bag were pockets and which parts needed to be ripped open, and reverently hung this impressive uniform on an infrequently-used closet door frame so that I could look at it from time to time during the day. I guess I have a bit of cap and gown envy. The very old tradition at my high school (Philadelphia High School for Girls) was for everyone to wear individual white dresses and carry a cascade of red carnations at graduation. I was happy about it at the time. After all, it was the iconoclastic 60s and everyone was encouraged to “do your own thing.” We did look (and smell) wonderful at our graduation ceremony, although the girls who could afford designer dresses probably looked a little more upscale.

I didn’t attend my college graduation from Temple University. There were a number of reasons for that. I remember the night of my older sister’s graduation. The only place large enough to house Temple’s graduation was Convention Hall. We were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for so long that in order to make it to the graduation in time, my sister got out of the car in the rain and ran the last few blocks. When we were finally seated, we were treated to endless speeches and no individual recognition of the graduates. The whole evening was a nightmare. Six years later, my graduating class was even larger than hers. By attending summer classes, I was able to graduate with my B.S. in Education in three years. I was eligible for graduation in January of 1970, just before my twentieth birthday, but graduation ceremonies were held only once a year. It seemed anticlimactic to pay the fees to show up in cap and gown months after I had graduated and gotten my diploma and was already working. I took some masters courses after marrying in 1971, (another chance to wear the costume), but never finished. It became our focus to have Saul finish his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Before beginning this post, I looked up the history and raison d’etre of these impressive garments, and suffice it to say that one could spend a lifetime researching this topic. The mortarboard and tassel are really such an oddity, if you think about it. What practical purpose could this garb have ever had for scholars!? Did that flat square keep rain from dripping on their noses? When my daughter, Jessica, and then her husband, Alex, graduated from Columbia University, I was treated to one of the most impressive displays of pomp and circumstance I have ever seen outside of televised royal weddings. Columbia’s history predates the existence of The United States of America. In the outstretched arms of those velveted and resplendent dignitaries leading the academic parade were jewel-encrusted gold scepters and orbs worthy of a king.

As the wrinkles “hang out” and I fret about whether to try to hurry up the process in a shower-steamy bathroom or actually set up the ironing board to satisfy my own O.C.D., we are counting down the days again this year until finals are over, grades are turned in, and graduation ushers in a period of free-wheeling summer days enjoying our granddaughters as the only staff of “Camp Bubbie and Saba.”

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