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Graduation 101: Meeting the Parents

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So sue me: I like attending graduation ceremonies.

I have been teased, mercilessly, for admitting as much; otherwise friendly colleagues cackle and sneer at the very thought of being "forced" to show up on a non-teaching day -- and I'm talking full-time members of academic departments, not beleaguered adjuncts or grad students. But since I've always liked the process, processionals and all, I always volunteer. It's not a hardship.

Trust me, I'm the first to admit that I'm no saint when it comes to showing up. I skip meetings whenever possible and do committee work at gunpoint -- but these I enjoy.

I didn't go to my own college graduation, but I've made up for it since. I even attended the graduation ceremonies at Queens College when I was employed as an adjunct and a T.A. simply because I wanted to see my "kids" (many of whom were dozens of years older than I at that point) get their hard-won diplomas.

I've witnessed more UConn graduations in Gampel Pavilion than I've witnessed UConn sporting events. I'm lucky; I've never seen anybody lose.

The part I really enjoy about graduation, of course, is meeting the parents.

My students bring their families to campus -- parents, stepparents or at least some version of a parental unit -- as well as couple of aunts or grandparents, old family friends and the occasional sibling. In many cases, I've heard about these family members for years; in some cases, I know far more detail than the students would like their families to know I do.

I say "It's wonderful to meet you" and "Congratulations!"

I do not say "Are you the uncle who drinks, or the one who gambles?" and I never say, "Mom, leave him alone already. Calling him every night to ask if he loves you is not a healthy way for this otherwise fine young man to develop his emotional potential. Get a grip, lady, and find a therapist." Never yet have I said "Dad, if you don't stop telling your daughter to go to law school so she can marry a lawyer, I will -- personally -- egg your car."

Meeting the parents when I know only that they've been loving and supportive of their kids, which is what I know is true in almost every situation (glossing over the details) is a genuine pleasure. I mean it when I tell them they deserve a lot of credit. I'm sincere when I thank them for having raised a young man or young woman who will make a difference in the world.

When I talk to them about their son's sense of humor or their daughter's critical insight, they kvell. Even if they are Presbyterians and don't know the word, they kvell.

At UConn, the reason the faculty can meet and talk with the parents of our graduating seniors is because the English department hosts a reception before the university ceremonies begin.

A few years ago, this event, while not disastrous, was ridiculous.

For a bunch of reasons, the only food available was bananas. Or else it just seemed that way. There were undeniably many, many bananas. It was like a cross between a Woody Allen movie and a National Geographic special. Anyway, as you might imagine, nobody ate anything. Nobody wanted to be introduced to anybody else while holding or peeling or eating a banana. (I guess it was more like one of those experiments where unwitting participants are observed by anthropologists. Nobody wanted to make the first move, frightened as we were by fruit.) Parents, students and professors alike stood around looking even more uncomfortable than usual.

Since then -- right after the photographs taken at that event started appearing on Facebook with sarcastic and vaguely lewd caption -- a woman named Inda Watrous became the hero of the UConn English Department's celebration. Our department's undergraduate academic adviser, the fearless Inda took it upon herself to organize the reception. It felt like a celebration. There was a sense of plenty.

There were sandwiches! There were sodas from recognizable bottlers and distributors! There were deceptively unhealthy pasta salads filled with mayonnaise goodness!

The supremely modest rooms where the event is held -- square, squat spaces otherwise used for faculty meetings and as study areas -- were decorated. The manifest thoughtfulness of the event was enough to make our guests feel they were being both welcomed and congratulated by the department as whole (note the "w").

It takes the focus and the planning of a single individual to make this kind of party a success, just as it takes a focused group of people -- family, teachers, faculty, advisers, and friends -- to get any student to the finish line.

I'm happy to be on the sidelines, cheering. And eating.

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This essay first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education