Graduation, celebration, nation… voices from Yale, a humbling home.

May 22, 2011 by

Graduation, celebration, nation…  voices from Yale, a humbling home.

May 2011. New Haven turned into New York. You walk around the once familiar streets and wonder which corner to take to escape the crowds of parents, siblings, aunties and uncles of the graduating class 2011. It’s not just the numbers, however, that strike you, but the looks as well…

If you’ve lived here for a while, you’ve  got used to students parading around the college yards in their pijamas, or gym suits, or shorts or any other informal and comfy garment you might pick. You got used to seeing navy all around you: navy of Yale hoodies, Yale sweatshirts, Yale bags, Yale caps (even though you probably didn’t expect Tom Hanks to wear it today!). But the trend was broken by the arrival of crème de la crème of world society, the parents, dressed in different colours, dressed classy. New Haven is buzzing with a mix of languages and high heels on the cobblestones. A microcosm of people who value education more than anything else – a microcosm of pride, congratulations and farewell. But before that…

…the processions of seniors (fourth years undergrads) in gowns zipped up (unlike the Oxford ones which stay open) and hats has departed for Old Campus – a place of the celebrations. Hats is what you see first – self-invented, hand-made, incredible constructions rising from the brainy heads of soon-to-be graduates. An Eiffel Tower rushes past me (and turns into a Pisa Tower on the way), a palm tree follows, a Yale mascotte, a dragon… It looks and feels like a carnival period in the German Rheinland (or Brazil maybe), just without alcohol (yet). The professors wear goofy spectacular hats, too. Noble laureats, award-winners, experts in their fields wearing hats straight from a cartoon watched on a TV with a maximum lightness setting on. And switched on loud, very loud.

The ceremony begins. Music like from Star Wars, as my friend aptly remarks, grand and proud, accompanies this flashy-jolly gang of students and professors as they ascend the stage. In the midst of them – Tom Hanks in a Yale cap.  Once everyone is on stage, or seated in the first rows, speech time begins. Speeches of graduating students –  of wit and wisdom, of razor-sharp minds and humane hearts. Speeches that focus on the “human” rather than the academic aspects of life at Yale: they concern the relationship and community building, development of responsibility and nurturing one’s passions, the ability to fall in love – with places, activities and people. In one speech entitled “A Humbling Home” a student spoke of his failures, dissapointments,  his struggle to keep up followed by his appreciation of the kind of talent, verve and energy he was surrounded by here. “Out there it’s just gonna be easier, noone will make you feel so stupid and at the same time so grateful so often. It’ll be the same, just with less intensity.”

Out of all things, funny and serious, I especially remember  Tom Hanks speaking of fear: an overwhelming rising feeling in our uncertain world, and how he juxtaopposed it with faith. At times he fell into the isn’t it great to be American tone, and put an equation mark between faith, security and America’s role in the world. Yale graduates would lead the way – away from fear towards faith, passion, beliefs….[cheers reverberate in the yard surrounded by building, hats fly up and down…]

The awards. Let me just quote one of them: The Apheus Henry Snow Prize: Awarded to the Senior, whose breath of intellectual achievement, strength of character, and fundamental humanity shall be adjudged by the Faculty to have provided leadership of his or her fellow students, inspiring in in them love of learning and concern for others. What a beautiful category, I thought, then I looked up the stage and, together with thousands of people gathered on Old Campus, burst out laughing, The awardee had a hat on that looked like a toilet closet and a roll of toilet paper hung round his neck. He smiled, his cheeks beamed and then it came: an interminable list of achievements read out by the professor, straight As, involvement in sports, tutoring public school children, serving on the inter-racial board committee …and so on and on and on, students of talents and commitments, in cartoon-like hats and monk-like robes, coming onto the stage with smiles, and leaving with diplomas and tears.

Then came the Yale anthem that all professors seem to know by heart and all parents marvel at. And a film made by the graduting students, about Yale. Hopefully they’ll put it on YouTube at some point, because I can only describe the pain in my stomach muscles from laughing… Oh what a ceremony – such pomp, such display, such atmosphere, and such unprecedented mix of jovial and grand, of funny and wise, of entertainment and seriousness. And after  the ceremony you go back home and see a collection of graduation cupcakes, with chocolate mortarboards on top, waiting for you (see photo) and lovely friends…tomorrow my big day, without fancy hats, but with hoods, the colours depending on degree, with great people and hopefully, with a diploma at the end 🙂

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