I attended my grandson Josh’s graduation ceremony in the spring — and was reminded just how wonderful a quality parental concern for a child’s college career can be. The bribing of coaches and proctors in the news, on the other hand, has been a sad parody of an admirable quality. It was an uplifting business to be among the joyous crowd of parents, grandparents and other loved ones cheering on SUNY Cortland’s Class of 2019 in May.
The crowd roared as the graduates entered the arena! I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the ceremony as much as I did. I’d been to my wife’s graduation and those of my three children. And for several decades I’d taught at Queens College, frequently attending ceremonies there. In truth, I was not looking forward to the speeches from the platform.
I dutifully listened, nevertheless, as a young woman, president of the senior class, began her speech. She spoke before the huge crowd with an ease and confidence few achieve. Her story grabbed my attention immediately. In her first semester at Cortland, she had to make an oral presentation in class. She struggled mightily, but no words emerged from her mouth; instead, she burst into tears and ran from the room. I leaned forward, watched her live on stage and projected on a large screen overhead. She said she ran all the way to her dorm, called her father and asked him to come get her. She would live at home and go to school locally.
“No,” he told her. “You’re going to have to work this out. I’ll call you back tomorrow.” She went back to her professor. He sympathized with her, and helped her prepare a new presentation. Her dorm mates understood and encouraged her.
Now the class president spoke directly to her father. “Thank you, Dad, for saying ‘no,’ and for sticking by me through the four years.” Her story dramatically reflected the crises of confidence and transformative educational experiences so many of these graduates had gone through with the enthusiastic and sensitive support of their parents in the previous four years. Certainly this held true for my grandson Josh.
Cortland’s president, Erik Bitterbaum, told us he had recently instituted a “tradition.” As the graduates crossed the platform and received their diplomas they were to speak the names of those they wished to honor. Of those named, parents, grandparents and other family members far outnumbered boyfriends, girlfriends and dogs.
When the college president stepped to the podium to offer his own advice to the graduates, I can’t say my attention rose to the level of dutiful. Again, my reservations about commencement speeches were delightfully undermined by Bitterbaum. An historian by trade, he chose not to mine the archives for advice to his graduates, but instead recalled his own undergraduate days at City College when he visited his ailing immigrant grandfather in a Bronx nursing home. Grandpa, he said, gave him four guiding principles for his future. Take risks: We don’t make our way in the world standing on the sidelines. Fall on your face: Eventually you will get up and do better. Hang out with doers: It’s catching. Finish the jobs you take on: People will trust you.
When I graduated from college in the 1950s, I was the first in my family to do so. My father had graduated from high school, and my mother from eighth grade. I didn’t appreciate then how important my graduation ceremony was to my parents. I’m sure there was a healthy percentage of parents and grandparents in the audience at Cortland whose pride and enthusiasm were fueled a bit more warmly by a child being the family’s first to receive a degree.
Just behind me sat a couple my age with big smiles on their faces. I asked, “Are you grandparents of one of the graduates?” “No,” the gentleman answered with a West Indian lilt. “We are mentors.”
He told me he was from Brownsville, Brooklyn. I told him I’d grown up near there in the ’40s and ’50s, on the other side of Fulton Street, under which the A train ran. He told me he was part of a church group that prepared neighborhood young people to go to college and supported them while they were there. Here was a whole community, acting as parents, concerned about the college careers of its children. Quite a difference from the Hollywood brand of parental concern.
Now here came the graduates. My daughter, Lauraine, son-in-law, Alan, and Josh's sister, Alexa, stood and cheered as they processed out into the world. There was Josh, graduation cap on his head, waving and smiling over at us, 6-foot tall. I wished his grandma, my wife, could be there. She would have been so proud.
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