Graduation day: There and then, here and now

What a difference a few continents, a foreign language, another society and a completely different culture, mindset and educational system make.

Herb graduation cartoon 370 (photo credit: pepe fainberg)
Herb graduation cartoon 370
(photo credit: pepe fainberg)
‘Abba, could you please stop humming that stupid song,” my daughter said the other day, as we proudly watched her brother, Skippy, graduate high school.
“Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum,” I continued, Edgar Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance (Land of Hope and Glory), that traditional song for graduation processions in the US, playing over and over in my mind. “Dum, dum, dum, dum, deeeeee, dum; ba, ba, ba, ba, ba...”
And in between the “dum, dums” and the “ba, bas,” I dramatically and formally whispered the following names into my annoyed daughter’s ear: “Kaley, Terri; Kaufman, Sam; Keinon, Skippy; Kharas, Katie; Kishimoto, Noreen M.”
My daughter thought me nuts, and looked around to make sure no one was watching. “Shhhhhh,” she shushed.
Never mind, I was having a grand old time approximating what this graduation ceremony would have been like had Skippy attended the high school I went to – George Washington High in Denver – rather than an environmental yeshiva not far from Beersheba.
What a difference a few continents, a foreign language, another society and a completely different culture, mindset and educational system make.
Indeed, there were some 40 kids at Skippy’s ceremony, all pretty much cut from the same cloth.
He knew everyone. They all looked alike, had similar immediate goals (elite units in the army – yalla), and even sounded alike with deep, mumbling voices.
All had the same five-word vocabulary to describe everything under the sun: sababa (cool), eser (10), dvash (honey), achla (great), and achi (bro). They hugged each other upon seeing one another after a day’s absence, as if reuniting after being separated for decades.
In my graduating class there were about 850 kids, from all different ethnic and economic backgrounds. I didn’t know either person sitting next to me in the auditorium as the principal droned on about the challenges awaiting the Class of ‘77 (“Yay, yippee, wooo hoooo”). And I wouldn’t be caught dead hugging one of my male classmates, even if it was a best friend who – Dr Zhivago-like – returned from the gulag with icicles in his beard.
Skippy wore shorts and a T-shirt; I donned cap and gown. His final class outing was a five-day “fun workshop” traveling the length and breadth of the Galilee and Golan. Mine was a two-hour lunch at the Spaghetti Factory in downtown Denver.
Skippy’s sights as he graduates are set on the army, mine were on college. Indeed, those in my school who actually thought about the army, those in ROTC, were looked down upon as unfortunate, poor souls with few options.
But still, despite all the differences – and they are legion – there are similarities. I remember that happy/sad feeling upon graduating high school: that feeling of uncertainty; of wondering what it would be like to swim in the big world; of joy at being done with math; of feeling mature; of pledging to remain in touch with friends, but knowing deep down that I never would.
I remember feeling all man-about-town and gown-up, only to be brought back down to earth when I came home from the ceremony and my father ordered me to do household chores, as if nothing had changed.
(My father has still retained that bring-you-down- to-earth quality. Upon proudly receiving news recently that the second of his two grandsons from my sister became a rabbi, he told me on the phone, in reference to my line of work, “We now have in the family two rabbis and a human typewriter”).
It’s an odd feeling, graduating. It’s something you work toward and eagerly anticipate for the independence it allegedly bestows, but at the same time, once it passes you are cast into a new reality – a reality less secure, less defined, less certain.
Those feelings that well up upon hearing your name called as you march up to get either a diploma – in my case – or a book about the topography of southern Israel – in my son’s – are as cross-cultural as they are cross-generational.
The Shabbat before Skippy’s graduation, all the parents of his graduating class were invited to the school for a final get-together – kids, parents, faculty. It turned into a love fest, as these types of closing ceremonies often do.
“What a wonderful place to send the boys” (it was); “I sent a boy and got back an adult” (well, kind of); “They learned so much” (lets not go nuts here).
At one session, the head of the yeshiva had everyone sit in concentric circles and proceeded to ask the parents how they felt now that their boys were “coming home” after finishing four years in his school.
Again, the answers were sweetness and light.
“Ah, they had grown so much.” “Ah, they had matured so intensely.” “Ah, they had changed so much for the good.”
Nu, what are folks going to say a week before graduation? “I gave you a sweet boy and look what you turned him into”? Skippy, knowing beforehand how the Shabbat would proceed, cautioned me against speaking.
“No fadichot” (potential embarrassments), he warned.
He didn’t have to caution too much (he should have concentrated on his mother). I hate speaking in these settings. It’s a combination of innate shyness, not having much to say (touchy-feely is not my comfort zone), and being overly self-conscious about my Hebrew accent. In fact, when the circle formed I tried to figure out from which side they were going to start the discussion and scrambled for a position at the other end, hoping time would run out before they called on me.
Had I mustered up the courage, however, I would have taken all that sweetness and light down just a notch.
“You ask what it’s like when the boy comes home after studying here for four years,” I yearned to say, but was afraid of getting booed or angrily eyeballed by my son. “Well, when Skippy comes home, what we have is a built-in conflict between his desire for freedom, and my desire to restrict it. The key is finding a balance that allows him some independence, while at the same time saving me from a heart attack. The rest is commentary.”
And then, of course, I would have hummed a Pomp and Circumstance flourish.