This post depicts events that began on the same day that the previous post ended, February 1st, 2004.--D.
After I spoke at the lectern, I crossed the stage and waited there with a large and growing crowd of my fellow graduates until all of us had revealed ourselves and spoken. While we waited, I looked out over the audience--a sea of dark and barely candle-lit people, people whom I knew and people whom I did not know. I thought about my first night here and how I couldn't imagine then being on the stage and now I was here, how I'd never had this view before and would never have precisely this view again. One can only graduate once.
Then, finally, Kit spoke some ritual words--I've heard that similar words are used at other schools, for they accomplish the legal magic of degree conferral. We were now college graduates, Bachelors of Arts. Then we filed down off the stage, once again in alphabetical order, and the mystery woman we'd seen in the wing before handed us our diplomas as we went by. We processed out of the Chapel and then none of us knew what to do from there. None of this had been rehearsed, we'd just seen what graduates did before--but where did they go after they left?
We milled around for a bit, until the mystery woman came out after us and shepherded us all into a nearby classroom. There she introduced herself as Anna, said she had graduated in 1998, and asked if we had any questions. We had lots of them.
How did the masters' arrange our "kidnapping" without letting any of the other students know? Where was our stuff from our dorm rooms?
Where were we going to sleep that night?
What would happen tomorrow?
When were we supposed to leave?
What had just happened to us?
She laughed and answered all our questions, except that last one, explaining that we were welcome to attend whatever parties we wanted that night, and could sleep wherever we wanted, but not to attend breakfast. We would have breakfast separately, at 7:30 the next morning, in the Chapel, after which our families would join us there for a kind of farewell celebration. Yes, our families had already been contacted. We would leave from there.
And that is what we did.
Incidentally, my graduating class did include a naked person. Almost every year I've been here, someone is naked under their cloak. I don't know why the tradition persists, we all know the naked person has to stay that way for a while and ends up very cold, but it does persist. This year, the naked person was Joanna. It is a strange thing to consciously think "I'm looking at you naked for the last time." I imagine that most such last times, if you knew it was going to be the last time, you wouldn't get naked in the first place, but of course her nakedness had nothing to do with me anymore. She hardly spoke to me after the ceremony.
Having breakfast a half hour earlier than everyone else meant that when the new yearlings came out of meditation, we were already gone. In fact, I was gone long before that--I took a long walk before breakfast to say goodbye to campus. We were discouraged from saying too much to the students anyway--we were all supposed to just sort of vaguely vanish.
I don't know why vaguely vanishing is the thing. Perhaps the vagueness helps establish graduation as a thing people are used to not really knowing about, a thing they accept without asking questions--a lack of questions certainly makes it easier for them to spring the surprise of the ordeal on us. But whatever the reason, it actually makes our leaving abrupt, ragged. We don't really get to say goodbye, which is especially rough on those of us going into Absence. And we have to help support that vagueness by not saying goodbye, by intentionally misdirecting attention, the night of the parties, to the welcome of incoming yearlings, and away from what was happening to us. We had to establish ourselves as people the others just didn't ask about--that is something Anna made clear, that, having had our time as novices, we had to now support the novitiate experience of others.
We didn't really get to say goodbye to the masters, either, not one-on-one. As I realized that, I understood why Allen had made a point of speaking to me the other day, and I appreciated it. It bothers me that neither Kit nor Charlie did so, but I suppose they have their reasons. The masters have some activity Brigid Night that doesn't involve students, so they don't attend any of our parties, and they didn't attend breakfast with us. They did mingle briefly with us as they came in for the formal celebration, giving out hugs and congratulations and well-wishes, but that was brief. I think, at the time, we all thought we'd be able to talk to them afterwards.
I don't understand why leave-taking around here must be so abrupt.
In a way, we didn't even get to say goodbye to each other. Of course none of us wore uniforms to breakfast--none of us had uniforms anymore--and seeing everyone dressed in ordinary clothing, looking like the outsiders we all now were, somehow made us shy with each other and glum. It was as though we all belonged to each others' past already. We sat around together, awkwardly not knowing what to say.
The breakfast, incidentally, was entirely organized by Anna and several other former students. They were part of the secret of the ordeal--everything that needed doing in secret, behind the scenes, they had done. Former students such as Jeff and Arthur, who come to campus regularly, had even spread the rumors of the mysterious "something" we had to be on campus for. They were the elves making everything happen.
As we were helping to clean up after the meal, our families arrived, one or two or five people for each of us. I still don't know how a hundred-some extra people arrive on campus without the students ever noticing, but it happens, a giant magic trick, community-scale sleight-of-hand. While we were still milling around, introducing everybody and helping to re-arrange chairs, the masters arrived--just the Six, not any of the others--mingled briefly, and then retreated to the stage to begin what I can only describe as a roast. Of us, of course.
I had always wondered why it was that parents weren't invited to graduation--I mean, I knew several obvious explanations (Chapel Hall wouldn't fit everybody, the graduation ceremony is also an induction ceremony and therefore shouldn't include outsiders), but they only explained why graduation as we conducted it couldn't include families. I didn't know why graduation wasn't conducted differently so families could come.
It turns out that there is a second ceremony that families can come to, and that is the farewell roast. I guess it functions as a kind of hand-over, with the masters telling our families what we've been up to while in their care--with a great deal of teasing, of course.
There were thirty-seven of us, so of course they couldn't do each of us in turn. 37 separate roasts would have taken all day and all night. So instead, each of the six took a turn talking humorously about six or seven students. Most of us got roasted by that master who knew us best, but I noticed exceptions. For one thing, Zeb had worked most closely with Chuck, who isn't one of the Six and therefor wasn't there. For another, Charlie and Kit were both more popular in our year than any of the others, so some of their students got distributed to the others. Still, each of us got about two minutes to have our virtues and foibles extolled, to much hilarity.
Of course, Kit and Allen were the best at it--their speeches were the funniest, the most evocative, the most heart-warming. Both of them are professional performers. Karen was unquestionably the worst, as she remains painfully shy and actually had trouble projecting her voice loudly enough to be heard. Greg, too, had trouble. He is shy and, by temperament, quite serious. His "roast" of Steve Bees, for example, wasn't funny at all, though it was sweet, respectful, and true.
Joy's discussion of Eddie sticks in my mind, for some reason.
"I want to talk about Eddie," she began. "Eddie is a funny, kind, and compassionate man--and a huge flirt. Am I right, ladies? Is there any woman in the room who isn't married or a confirmed lesbian he hasn't come on to? Oh, there are? Well, give him time. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Eddie is not a man without standards. Rather, he can see the best in everyone--which is why he wants to date all of us. I'm serious, now, it's a gift that he has--may we all become the goddesses Eddie thinks we are. But that's not what I came here to talk about. No, I want to talk about Eddie's other great passion; dogs."
From there she described his work with service dogs and therapy dogs and told a very funny story about a half-grown Newfoundland puppy who would not be tamed and ended up dragging poor Eddie halfway across a pasture.
My turn came near the end. I'd had no idea what Charlie was going to say about me, because he never teases me, though he has a sense of humor, and had already dropped some zingers on some of the other students by the time he got to me.
He started by telling a tail on himself, admitting (finally!) that some of the assignments he'd given me had been pretty strange--and that I'd tackled all of them without complaint and almost without question.
"It's a little awe-full," he said, "as in full of awe, to have that kind of loyalty, that kind of trust. I mean, what if I told him, I don't know, to go fetch a feather from the top of the Himalaya, would he do it? My God, what kind of monster could I become?" Somehow that became a laugh line, and I think Charlie meant for it to be, but I wonder how serious he really was. "But no, Daniel is a good man. He has good judgment. He wouldn't stand for that kind of garbage, I'm sure. In fact, I wasn't going to teach him, but he made himself enough of a pain-in-the-neck that I finally said yes. And I'm glad he did it. It's been a great ride and I expect it to continue in a couple of years."
That warmed my heart in a way I hadn't expected. After four years, it's good to know Charlie can still surprise me.
After they were done "roasting" us, all of them pulled back and left Allen in the center of the stage, perched on a chair with his guitar--and, as he so often has, he played James Taylor.
When you're down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
He played gently, he sang pleasantly, but a little off-key, and he sang through the whole song--making a promise.
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running, oh yeah baby, to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
It was a promise that I, facing Absence, really needed to hear. Before he was halfway through, the others joined in, stepping forward, closer to him, to sing to us.
All you've got to do is call
And I'll be there, ye, ye, ye
You've got a friend.
And it occurred to me, finally, that the song contained the central teaching, the central miracle of this place--"the magic of friendship" sounds incredibly hoaky and naive, but only because it is naive to believe it can be woven in a half an hour as demonstrated on some kids' television show. In fact, it's damn difficult for any community to really, truly treat each other with genuine care and consideration, and that is precisely what these people have done--it is possible. They're not any better at liking than the rest of us. They certainly don't all like each other, and they're not necessarily always likeable. I mean, at this distance, the things Charlie put me through these past couple of years seem like amusing foibles, but at the time I really wanted to smack him sometimes. But they do love well here. They work hard at it.
Allen began the song all over again and this time we all joined in, singing the promise back to him, without being asked or directed, all of us on our feet, our hearts full, eyes streaming, singing through to the end and then clapping, cheering, gratitude, though I don't think any of us could see the stage anymore through the sea of standing, cheering people in front of us--
Except the masters were no longer on the stage. Somebody must have had a clear view, somebody must have been in front, but nobody saw them go. We'd been singing to each other--the stage was simply empty and silent.
Had we imagined them?