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In the absence of divestment and restructuring, Commencement has once again become a celebration of education rather than discontent.

We had watched for weeks as the ropes and poles rose on Old Campus, as strings were drawn across the grass to align the chairs, as the chairs themselves were set up in long, expectant rows. Still, it came as something of a surprise to the Class of 1995 when Commencement weekend arrived along with our parents, and we were called to Class Day. Seniors who’d been sleeping late since the end of classes blinked in the bright morning sunlight, robes rumpled, caps askew. We milled about on the Cross Campus Lawn, comparing tans and exchanging stories about “Dead Week” trips to Florida and Myrtle Beach. All at once the group began to lurch toward Woolsey Hall, and those who had strayed to the lines of other colleges hastened to catch up with their classmates, gowns billowing behind them.

The way to Woolsey for the Baccalaureate Service seemed to take the most circuitous route possible. “Hasn’t anyone here heard of point A to point B?” grumbled one senior. Entering the great hall, however, we were taken aback: hundreds of people were massed there, crowding the aisles, leaning over balconies, waving, smiling, craning to take pictures. “Are these people here for us?” asked one student in wonder.

The President, college masters, and deans came in behind us, ascending the platform with a blare of trumpets. In his richly colored hood and heavy collar, President Levin, shouldering an enormous scepter, looked like royalty; we felt a bit awed and uncertain. The organ had to prompt twice before we started to sing the morning’s hymn, and after the President proclaimed, “Men and Women of the Class of 1995,” he added in a stage whisper, “That’s your cue,” to the seniors who forgot to rise.

The readings brought a few moments of levity to the solemn gathering. Dean Richard Brodhead chose a literary selection appropriate to the occasion: “This passage is about people’s feelings when they leave a place where they’ve had good times,” he announced. “I refer, of course, to Milton’s Paradise Lost.” James Edward Ponet, Yale’s Jewish Chaplain, quoted an Amora, a 4th century Palestinian teacher, in his sermon on “Dealing with Evil”: “If you see that your evil inclination is overtaking you, you should travel to a place where no one knows you, dress in black, drape yourself in black, and act out your heart’s desire,” he read. “Well, we’re already in black,” quipped a senior.

The continual rumble and murmur of the crowd grew quiet, however, when the Yale Glee Club began to sing Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. High in the eaves of Woolsey, their frail voices seemed to descend from the rafters like angels’. When President Levin took the lectern he was accompanied by the quick clicking of camera shutters and a barrage of flashbulb bursts, and as he began to deliver his Baccalaureate Address in the shadowed hall, he looked as though he were lit by bolts of lightning.

After lunching with parents, the seniors reconvened on the Cross Campus in a more convivial mood. The variety of funny and unusual hats worn by all attested to the creativity and originality (not to mention abundant free time) of the soon-to-be graduates: There were turbans, Viking helmets, newspaper hats, sombreros, cowboy hats, dunce caps, wreaths of leaves and flowers, and the ubiquitous Yale ’95 baseball caps. The Class Day proceedings on Old Campus quickly took on the aspect of a carnival, the air filled with the sounds of popping champagne corks and the smell of tobacco burning in the ceremonial clay pipes. It was a day to make light of the pomp and pretension of Commencement, to scoff and make jokes. Even the Class Day speaker, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke ’71, humorously referred to himself as a “nerd” and an “egghead,” who lacked the “instant recognition” of the 1993 speaker, actress Jodie Foster ’84. Nerd or no, Schmoke gave a stirring speech on the importance of cities to America’s future, and the value of each individual’s contribution to the civic enterprise. “Large, heroic lives can live in small and quiet ways,” he said.

After the Class History (replete with harmonica solo) was read, the Class ivy planted, and white handkerchiefs waved to the last line of “For God, for Country, and for Yale!” the seniors joined their parents for receptions at the residential colleges. Later that night, the Commencement Ball raged in Beinecke Plaza, the outdoor dance floor packed and lines for drinks a dozen deep.

There were rumors of rain on Monday, but the morning brought the bluest skies of a damp, gray spring, and a sunny, even hot, day. A flicker of nervousness animated the gestures of seniors gathering in college courtyards and walking to Cross Campus. We whispered and giggled, took photographs (our long sleeves providing convenient camouflage for prohibited cameras), and paired up strategically, making sure we would sit next to someone we liked (distastes as well as friendships were formed over the last four years, after all). We concealed our anxiety with an excessive concern about our robes, and debated hotly whether the tassel was to be worn on the right or the left side of the cap (“Our master told us to wear it this way,” announced one senior in passing, as an entire college walked by with their tassels on wrong. For future reference: It’s the left side.)

The trek was even longer and more winding than the one the day before, but instead of grumbling, the seniors seemed to appreciate a few more moments for reflection. On our rambling walk—through the Noah Porter gate, down Elm Street, across the New Haven Green—we looked around, seeing things as if for the first, or the last, time. Everything seemed striking, charged, fateful. The dogwoods lining College Street were blindingly white with blooms; the shade of the elms in the Green was thick and dark. City residents studied the procession from park benches; a group of small children cheered and threw grass like confetti.

Seniors drew a collective breath as we approached the mouth of Phelps Gate, thousands of expectant faces glimpsed beyond. One senior noted with a nervous laugh that the crowds were held back with yellow tape that read: “Stand Back—Crime Scene.” We filed into Old Campus, accompanied by portentous music played by the Yale University Concert Band, and took our seats. Looking immediately at the Commencement program, we eagerly combed the list of graduates’ names, and heaved sighs of relief when we found our own. Seniors cheered when President Levin granted us our diplomas, as well as when Wynton Marsalis, the jazz musician, and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia clothing company, received their honorary degrees. Impatiently we waited as 12 other schools of the University requested and were granted their degrees in a jumble of Latin.

At last it was time to return to our colleges to receive our diplomas. On the slow march back, the graduates seemed suddenly transformed: Caps that earlier had looked silly now took on a noble character; robes that had looked rumpled and uneven on Class Day appeared graceful, even in the heat. One by one we stepped up to receive the blue folders representing four years of study, and innumerable emotions and events. “This feels like an out-of-body experience,” murmured one former senior, dazedly cradling his diploma.

The graduates lingered on a bit after it was all over, savoring a combination of happiness and release, before making our final “getaway.”  the end


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