Swarthmore had its commencement this morning, on a very pleasant late spring day. I like to sit closer to the front so I can see the graduates and the audience, but it does mean you have to pay attention as they can see you.
One thing that I always notice, year after year, is the striking individualism of every single graduate’s way of walking across the stage to receive the diploma and a handshake from the president. Some of them walk confidently across with a faint smile. Some are somber. A few scurry furtively across like a night-dwelling creature who has been surprised by a bright light. Some of them shake Al Bloom’s hand like they are his fraternity brothers, others shake his hand like they’re afraid he has a joy buzzer in it. A few skip across in delirious joy, waving to friends and family. Some shake their diplomas gleefully at the crowd. Some look at us to their right, some look at family to their left, most stare fixedly ahead, as if they’re afraid the stage will come to an abrupt end and they will pitch off into the bushes. This year, one man scowled fearsomely at Al, and then winked knowingly at him. Caps occasionally pitch off of tall or hirsute heads, usually right when the graduate leans to receive a diploma.
For the students I know well, somehow the walk always captures their personality perfectly: shy, bold, indifferent, quietly confident, boisterous, performative. A window is framed by twenty steps, and then they’re back in the crowd, one more face among many.