05/24/2006 10:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Graduation Daze

All over the country families are gathering for Graduation, that special rite of spring. Pride, often mixed with relief that another child has passed the increasingly high-stakes educational gauntlet, is evident on the faces in the white folding chairs on lawns from Philadelphia to Palo Alto.

It wasn't nearly as sanguine at my college freshman convocation in the giant field house where we weren't to gather again except for basketball games. The president of the university cautioned us to look to our left...and then to our right...and know that only one of us three would be there on graduation day. (Nowadays with yields and grad rates assiduously computed for US News rankings, no college president would be caught dead giving away the store like that.) At the time, we shook our heads and laughed, fully self-confident that he must be crazy, it had taken all that time to get there and we weren't about to blow the handshake and the scroll and the hat with the tassel.

But as it turned out, of course, I fulfilled the president's depressing statistical analysis and wasn't there four years later. I had fled the campus for another university's program in Paris the previous year after the sex and drugs had gotten out of control and I had attempted to impose some rigor and structure as well as some intellectual discipline back in my life. My new university had told me it would be happy to graduate me if I would agree to retake at least a semester's worth of credits (this is a money scam commonly perpetrated on transfers). Have you ever asked this question of a college student?! It's grounds for academic divorce! I was heartbroken, not only about this, but because my former boyfriend had already graduated, so I told my parents I wouldn't return to school at the beginning of the semester.

But at the last minute, I panicked and re-enrolled. I had to live with three ex-sorority sisters who made room for me in the attic of a decrepit Victorian and we spent most of the semester dealing with our various substances, both controlled and controlling, and the daily snows that clobbered our leaky roof.

By the time I went home for Thanksgiving, I was eating only white foods and my parents weren't speaking to each other, or to me. This time, I did not return to school, and instead drove to the city on a regular basis to see a psychiatrist who also never spoke to me.

Nevertheless, in spite of being surrounded by self-styled mutes, by January, I was ready to face the world again. The museum that had employed me in high school and college rewarded my years of slavish internship by hiring me in their Special Events department, a job that capitalized on my strengths: partying, and weaknesses: partying. I wrote to my professors and I was able to get credit for this highbrow carousing as well as a few papers I cobbled together to satisfy the remaining requirements.

Sometime the following summer, I got a diploma in the mail which has actually never been out of its box.

Prior to that, my graduation record had been less spotty. At elementary-school graduation I sang a solo about the space race to the tune of "I'm getting married in the morning" which featured "Lika, the barking ball of fun," the dog that had gone up in the Russian Sputnik. At junior-high graduation, things got more serious and I sang hymns with the "A" choir. But by high school, events were already spinning out of control: an arsonist burned our school down about a month before graduation and we had a poignant, disheveled, song-less affair in front of the cindery remains. Luckily, my father took a few commemorative snapshots -- and they remain only ones I have of myself in a cap and gown.

So I was more than ready when my stepsons graduated from college and graduate school to take my proud place on the quad. The problem was, there weren't enough tickets for all the steps and the parents too, so I was gracefully disinvited and urged to take advantage of the free breakfast buffet at the hotel instead.

I still didn't despair because I knew that very soon my own sons would be graduating from college and I could attend their graduations. Though I had attended their fairly conventional though gownless sixth-grade graduations, by the eighth grade, I had witnessed at least one alternative, touchy-feely "moving up" ceremony that celebrated diversity. The children spent most of their time passing a candle and holding hands in group grope up on the stage, nary a tassel in sight. At the first high-school graduation, I got dehydrated in the amphitheater as the LA sun bore down mercilessly on the parents and had to go lie down in the car. At the second, our younger son, a pitcher who had missed most of the finer points of his graduation practice fielding a scout's cell calls during the baseball draft, came rushing down the grassy aisle as if he were covering first on a well-placed bunt.

It's therefore an understatement to say that I was eagerly looking forward to the "real" thing when it came time for them to finish college.

But these last two words turn out to be an oxymoron in our house. My eldest dropped out of school the month before college graduation in a puddle of leftover 9/11 PTS and came home claiming he would never return. (So far, he hasn't. He's gainfully employed, however, which takes the sting out just a little.) Then, the second one took a year off, so he's also behind in the rotation. He will graduate midyear, which will leave him between ceremonies.

The truth is, we are a graduation-challenged family. We seem to be able to talk the talk but not walk the walk. As everyone else gets ready for the pomp (proms and limos, trips to Europe, fat jobs on Wall Street) and circumstance (turning your back on John McCain and Condoleezza Rice, gleaning pearls of wisdom from Jodie Foster), I have been denied even a glimpse of the luminous parchment of that expensive, but elusive, diploma.

There is hope, however. At the end of this week, I have been invited to the graduation of stepson number two from his graphic design program. Somehow, probably because it's in San Francisco and they are used to dealing with deviant and extended families of every kind, there were enough tickets for me to snare one this time.

I am sitting on my hands waiting patiently for the first chords of "Pomp and Circumstance" to begin, and I have promised not to sing along.