Graduation was never meant to be about me. I made my peace with that even before I got to college. Graduation was for the family I left behind, for them to parade me around and proclaim, “Look at our daughter! She has a degree from Swarthmore!”
I am not anyone’s daughter, and “she” leaves my ears ringing long after the word is gone. But how do you tell the people you love that the name they gave you leaves a bitter taste in your mouth?
The answer — at least, for me — is that you don’t. You rename yourself, and you date women, and you ignore your parents’ texts, all the while wondering how to break it to them without making it sound like the liberal arts turned you into a massive dyke. You sneak a binder home for the summer, and when your mother finds it in the laundry and asks how you even breathe in it, you don’t tell her seeing yourself with a flat chest felt like surfacing from underwater for the first time in your life.
In a way, graduation was my compromise. If I was going to wear a suit and have short hair in all my photos, I felt like I had to let both my parents and the school misname and misgender me, to even it out. I have had more time than my family to learn to accept myself, so I feel the need to be patient with them, to ease them into knowing the person I have always been. Because so much of my queer journey has taken place on this campus, this compromise feels like a regression. It’s the farthest thing from the celebration of my achievements that graduation is supposed to be.
Maybe another part of why graduation feels so far removed from myself is because I’ve helped to make it happen, these past three years. I’ve pulled yards of muddy cable through the undergrowth, hung lights, and hauled road cases over the wood-chipped paths of the Crum. To me, Commencement was a chance to rack up extra hours of pay. It’s a long and tiring workday, beginning with Dunkin Donuts donut holes and ending with juicy pulled pork sandwiches at the Facilities barbecue. I’ve dreaded and looked forward to it in equal measure every year.
I know all the shortcuts in and out of the amphitheatre. I’ve watched John Alston run from the head of the procession into the Map House to conduct the band. I’ve passed the mic around to three classes of graduates at Last Collection and heard more than my fill of their sentimentality over the years.
And yet — I saved the stub of my candle from First Collection, in hopes of lighting it again at college’s end. For all the magic that’s been lost for me in Commencement, I was excited to create a little magic for myself by commissioning a friend to make a space-themed stole. I was disappointed when I found out I wouldn’t get to wear it in May. I did not write an entire thesis on science fiction to be denied this one moment of gloriously nerdy victory, damn it.
But that wasn’t the only part of in-person graduation that was canceled. I mean, I was already planning to blow off Senior Week events, but there was one notable exception. I have a strong compulsion to explore hard-to-reach places; I’ve conquered the rooftops of Papazian (which was demolished to make room for Singer) and Clothier, navigated the crawlspaces of Parrish and Lang Music. I’ve even been in the Rare Book Room in McCabe. The only place that has eluded me is the Bell Tower. Short of prying the door open with a crowbar — which is beyond even my grey morality — the only way to get up there is to stick it out until graduation. For three years, I watched the seniors traipse up those winding stairs with envy. This year, it was my turn to ascend to the highest peak on campus. It was, like the space stole, meant to be my moment of glorious victory.
In a way, maybe this compulsion is an externalization of my experience of queerness, which often feels like a long upward climb to a door I don’t entirely know what’s on the other side of, the whole time looking over my shoulder in fear of being caught. The need to climb certainly serves me well at my job. Working with lights necessitates being comfortable with heights, and I am happy to scale the cage to retrieve the giant CCTV cameras that need to be set up to broadcast Commencement. Maybe that’s why I kept returning to LPAC around graduation; when I was reminded that I would one day hear the wrong name called to shake President Smith’s hand, I could reclaim a little queerness for myself in the sensation of the Genie lifting me up, up, up.
Of course, it’s not just the nature of the work that has brought me back, again and again. The LPAC staff have known me since I was a froshling with no sense of style or idea of what to do with my hair. They have been endlessly patient, answering the same questions every time I asked. They have fought even harder than I have to keep me hired and fed. They have seen me at my most sleep-deprived and still trusted me with keys to the building, which was a lifesaver at one point, providing me with access to a shower and kitchen and a safe place to spend my days.
They have seen me struggle with my identity, and ultimately make the transition to better-fitting pronouns and a new name. When I’m around them, I never feel the need to look over my shoulder in fear. They may have passed some of their own cynicism of graduation off to me, but, if I had a chance at a do-over, I would still be there bright and early in my run blacks, ready to work all three Commencements with them again.
The real joy of graduation, then, lies in the memories of Commencements past that I’ve shared with these people. It’s the incoherent mumbling over coffee at the ass crack of dawn, banter over headsets, cheering together every time a familiar face crosses the stage. COVID-19 has spared me the stress of having to navigate graduation with my family, but it has also denied me these final moments of connection with the people who have lifted me up. These past weeks, I’ve been getting fresh air every day by walking the grounds, and it pains me to see all the buildings I’ve explored and not be able to enter them, one last time.
If the Class of 2020 had gotten the send-off we were supposed to, I would have wanted to help make it happen with the LPAC staff. I would have wanted to spend time with my friends, too, pull one last all-nighter to watch the sunrise over this beautiful campus that we may never all be on together again.
I find myself with mixed feelings, here at the end of the semester. These last months at Swarthmore are a loss I need to mourn.
Graduation was never meant to be about me. It was meant to be about the people and places I’ll carry with me, even as I leave them behind. Maybe, when finals are behind us and we enter what was supposed to be Senior Week, I will put on my mask and walk down to the amphitheater at night. I’ll light my First Collection candle and sit with it for a while, holding the memories of donut holes and pork sandwiches and banter and cheers in the light.
Featured images courtesy of the writer