Aren’t graduations grand? The sense of real accomplishment for the graduates; the feelings of pride in their loved ones; the caps and gowns; the pomp and circumstance; the photos and hugs; the tears and smiles. It’s about as good as life gets when you come right down to it.
Think about it. How many times in your life have you felt that you earned something for your own hard work, received recognition for it, and had all your loved ones admiring you for it. That trifecta – accomplishment, recognition, admiration – is rarely experienced by most of us. But we do get to experience it if we graduate from an academic institution that pulls out all the stops and makes a big deal of it, as most high schools, colleges and graduate schools do.
I teach at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. McGeorge is the law school for the University of the Pacific, which has its main campus in Stockton. The geographic separation of the campuses allows us to have our own graduation, and I must say we put on a pretty good show.
Our latest effort, held again this year at the Memorial Auditorium in downtown Sacramento, was another big success, despite the threatening weather (overcast and cool, especially for mid-May, when it isn’t unusual for temps to be up in the 90s).
It isn’t that we do anything all that unique. We faculty members march in to begin the proceedings, followed by the 300 or so graduates, all to Elgar’s perfectly composed music (how could these ceremonies have taken place before his score was published?) played on the hall’s organ by a fine musician hired for the occasion.
The parents, spouses and children of the graduates stand and applaud. Some take photographs; others video the entire scene. (I’ve often wondered how many of those videos have me smiling at the camera as we march by.)
Once we are all assembled, the faculty on the stage, the students in the front rows in the audience, friends and family in the rows behind them and in the balcony, our Dean (Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker) introduces herself, and a quartet of my colleagues join to sing the National Anthem (a cappella, and some years you can even recognize the melody). Then there is a prayer, thanking God for the wonders of the day, in so many words, followed by the speeches.
Now to be completely candid, in most instances, graduation speeches are not great oratory. Was it Ogden Nash who said, “If all the commencement speakers were laid end to end, it would be a good thing”? Or maybe it was Will Rogers.
In any event, our graduation speeches are provided by our university president (Pamela Eibeck), a distinguished member of the bar (this year newly appointed U.S. District Court Judge Kim Mueller), three students (representing our day and evening J.D. graduates and our LL.M. graduates) and, this year, one of our faculty (Thom Main, who was chosen as the graduates’ favorite prof for the umpteenth time; not that I’m jealous or anything). Thankfully, most of the orations were relatively short, and some were even memorable.
The graduates then are called one by one to walk across the stage while their scholastic accomplishments are read. They receive a hearty handshake from President Eibeck and Dean Parker, have their photos taken with each, and receive their diplomas (actually just the folder, as the diplomas are handed out off stage).
It is this part of the ceremony that I most enjoy. Seeing the students I have worked with for the last three years achieve their goal is a source of great satisfaction for me (and, I’m sure for all of my colleagues as well).
It’s what teaching is all about – the hard work that you force your students to do so they can gain the knowledge necessary to enter the profession that you are so proud to be a member of. And a lot of that work often results in some of the students thinking less than kind thoughts about us. (I was once told that my photo was in the center of a dart board in one student’s apartment.)
But when all the tests have been taken, all the briefs written, and all the oral arguments delivered, the pain and anguish is replaced with relief and elation, and we, the faculty that have pushed them so hard and made their lives so miserable, now get to share, vicariously, in their joy.
I love teaching. As much as I loved practicing law, in all the various forms of practice I engaged in, teaching has been the most satisfying of my career pursuits. And it is at our law school’s graduation each spring that I get my reward, which is to cheer for each of the students I’ve grown close to over the years as they have their moment of glory.
And after the ceremony, we have a big reception on our campus. I love walking around the quad visiting briefly with graduates and their families. Some want to have their photos taken with me; others want me to meet their parents. Occasionally, one will say something very special, like “I want you to know that I am a better person because I had you as a professor.”
Those are moments to be cherished.
For someone like me, apart from the life I’ve had with my wife and sons, my students and my work with them are how I want to be remembered. I know that sounds ridiculously sentimental, maybe even silly, but it’s true.
Teaching is hard work; good teaching requires everything you have to give. And you have to give it selflessly and unconditionally.
The responsibility I feel every fall when a new academic year begins is almost overwhelming, especially when I look into a classroom full of nervously enthusiastic first-year law students. The work is constant, thoroughly preparing for each class session, carefully grading each memo and brief, giving each student the personal time he or she needs, discovering better ways to reach each of them, learning with them and from them.
And graduations make it all worthwhile.