By Eduardo Andere Ph.D.
Cambridge, Mass. May 26, 2016.
A sunny day, warm but not hot. Everything is green and red on the ground; green by the lawn red by the bricks. This is one of those days where tension and relaxation happen in tandem.
The day began at 6 A.M. to a frugal breakfast with the deans of some of the schools under the umbrella of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). The breakfast took place behind the Science Center around Oxford Street, north of Harvard’s main campus, and two blocks away form the Sanders Theater. It is the 2016 Harvard University 365 Commencement Ceremonies.
The organizing staff gathers together all the graduates-to-be, after breakfast, in an orderly fashion. They are grouped together by their own schools or faculties. And by the sound of drums and bagpipes and the signs of leading flags the ceremonial academic procession starts towards the Tercentenary Theater, the open yard that divides or unites the Widener Library with the Memorial Church. It will be a tumultuous but culturally interesting event. Above all, it will be an event full of formality and emotions.
The green of the lawns and the red of the bricks are joined by black and red colors of caps, tassels and gowns. Not all gowns are the same. The colors are reversed if the candidates are to become PhD. graduates. For candidates to become master graduates the gown is basically black with red accents. And, in the whole gowns change colors, ribbons and other insignia, according to grades, programs or granting colleges or universities of origin.
The academic procession lasts for about half an hour until the head of the procession reaches one of the gates of the University’s main campus.
Different gates receive different groups. Police patrols and officers who kindly give way to the graduates-to-be guard the procession; no one complains. Families and friends walk along the candidates taking millions of photos and videos. It is in a way a trivial event, and yet extremely formal, emotional, and ritualistic. If the product is good, the package must be at least as good. It is a monumental party. And the formality of the past is contrasted with the informality of today; caps and gowns are worn upon sneakers and sandals. The contradiction is the point. There are thousands of students, smiling and proud; they are witnesses of their own testimonial.
The entrance to the Yard is controlled and access is allowed only to visitors with tickets or passes. People and passes are distributed by sections according to importance: there are those at the podium, the special guests, the 50 and 25 years old cohorts; the faculty members, and then, the graduates-to-be, all divided by schools or faculties. They enter through different gates and slowly but steadily walk to their seats, located among 34 thousand chairs, or so.
I happened to be located to section D2. I was able to mingle my way through a sea of people. I grabbed an empty and folded chair right next to one of the paths of the procession.
A few minutes later by the sounds of bands from the different Houses the place was full with people and music, the party had begun. Bagpipes and drums announced the second and last part of the academic procession. The climate was almost perfect, neither too hot nor too humid.
I’m sitting here 30+ years later, but now as a parent. I’m closing a circle. I never thought 30 years ago that I would live this story a second time, now with far more emotion and depth.
Here they come, the economists, the political scientists, the physicians wearing stethoscopes around their necks, designers with Lego pieces attached to their caps and lawyers with a judge mallet. The academic procession is slow, relatives and friends wait patiently and with camera in hand in case we run with luck and our children pass nearby. The feeling of monotony grows because the wait is long before something new occurs. The brain likes variety.
I am next to one of the corridors; 40 chairs away to my left hand, there is the central pathway that unites between the Widener and the Church. That is the path walked by the young Harvard College students; they walk with their teachers and deans, clustered and protected by their own Houses as Quincy, Dudley, Cabot, Winthrop, Adams.
Meanwhile, I see right next to my right hand the procession from the GSAS (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences)-AMSM (Masters in arts and sciences) and further back the GSAS – SEAS (School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) graduates-to-be. On a personal note, I was surprised, totally unexpected, next to me there was my son passing by, with his classmates, all of them smiling, enjoying the party regardless of the weather, waiting, as wanting to stop time. And then, a huge and long hug, uniting 30 years of history between father and son.
The academic procession ends.
Drums and trumpets announce the official start of the 2016 Commencement ceremony of the University. The Marshal addresses the Sheriff of Middlesex County to “give us order.” Then “The sheriff, resplendent in silk top hat, rises, moves solemnly to the front of the platform and, striking in three times with his silver-tipped staff, proclaims in a resonant voice, `The meeting will be in order.”
First comes the national anthem, then a prayer, then another anthem, after that a salutation in Latin by a female student talking about the “Thesaurus Linguae Harvardianae”, then two more speeches, another anthem, and the announcement by the Provost of the University of the Introduction of Conferring of Degrees, to be granted by the President of the University, historian Drew Gilpin Faust, school by school. More anthems. Then, the honorary degrees, including the one granted to the former president of Brazil, and author of the theory of the dependencia (famous in the seventies), Dr. Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
At the end the Harvard Hymn is song by the Assembly followed by the benediction and the closing statement of the ceremony. The ceremony is sealed with a march performed by the Band of the University.
It’s about noon and other ceremonies follow. Now, some schools including those belonging to the GSAS move to the famous Sanders Theatre, with a seating capacity for about 800 people. Here we go. The other faculties move to their respective grounds, i.e., law, business, Kennedy school of government, etc. In each school and at the Sanders Theatre, the Diploma granting ceremony takes place. This is a much-awaited event; candidates, families and friends enter the Theater with high expectations to be realized in a flash of formality. Families look for the best spots to take photos and videos. There are so many candidates and family members that as soon as one candidate gets his/her diploma he or she with family and friends leave the auditorium to give way to new candidates and families to enter from the opposite side.
With the Diploma in hand we all go back to the lawns of a graduate school where lunch, water and lemonades are waiting together with a glass (plastic) of champagne for a toast. Each proud family seats around the proud graduate. Laughs, comments, jokes, and the whole event is discussed. And everything is joy. But this tertulia doesn’t last long. At 2 P.M. we head back to the main campus, the Tercentenary Theatre. This time under the auspices of the Alumni association for the Alumni Exercises scheduled for 2.30 P.M. There are three main interventions, first, by the outgoing President of the Alumni Association; then by the President of the University and, finally, the awaited intervention by Steven Spielberg. The first one very long, the second, formal, serious, deep, typical of a University President, and the third, Spielberg, sensational.
Spielberg began his speech by stating clear and loud that he was a college dropout to follow his dream in cinema. But, under what moral authority he could ask his seven children to go to college if he himself was a dropout? So, well into his fifties he returned to college to complete his college education. With this revelation, Spielberg ignited one sonorous and hurrah applause! At another climax, with laughter and applause, with the help of an irony, and without mentioning names, but with clear reference to Trump, he referred to the American nation, as a nation of immigrants, well, at least until now. Finally, nobody could have done it better; Spielberg did a wonderful gala that connected the world of graduates with metaphors of his many films; from the Schindler’s List, to the E.T. and many in between. His speech was full of humanity raising the importance of family and human relationships. He ended his message like the E.T. at the end of the movie: «Go home!”
Spielberg, dressed up with suit and tie, wore blue and white sneakers. He received a thunderous, sincere and enthusiastic standing applause. A moment to remember!
It was already four o’clock, and the heat out of the shadows of the trees was beginning to be uncomfortable. But then, at precisely this time, the Alumni Exercises were adjourned, but the ceremonies continued. We now moved to a more humble and yet, very emotional ceremony. It was the final toast at the Faculty of Statistics in the Science building; more photos, endless smiles and final hugs between students, and between students and teachers. For many of the students it was the last embrace and the beginning of a new life.
At about 6 P.M., there were only reminiscences of the passage of thousands of people, empty chairs, groups of bystanders, graduates with togas half the way off, caps on hands, slowly returning to everyday life. This is the way it happened thirty years ago, it is the way it happens today. And it will happen forever!
Further along there is the famous Harvard Bridge seating over the Charles River, at the end of the day, after the end of the 365 Commencement Ceremonies, this 26th of May, 2016; serene, cheerful, resting and waiting for the 366 Commencement, on the 25th of May 2017. Congratulations!