With Cords and Caps, a Commencement of Hope

Commencement (n.): a start; a beginning; the act or instance of commencing; the day for conferring degrees or diplomas. I love the power of words, but I grapple with this one each June, intrigued that a student’s graduation—the culmination of their years of hard work—is also called commencement. One cannot enjoy the beginning of one thing, however, without an end to another, the contemplative caveat of our cyclical lives. It’s one I’ve been preparing for over these last few weeks as my daughter Elizabeth, our youngest child, prepared for her commencement.

Early that afternoon, she zipped the gown, adjusted the cords, and straightened the cap, decorated with sparkling letters and tiny photos of longtime friends. As she gave a final glance in the mirror, I peeked in beside her. My mind filled with images of that timid toddler with soft ringlets as the smiling face of my confident graduate reflected back at me. “Ready to go?” she asked, interrupting my momentary flashbacks and heading for the front door. Not sure that I was, still I returned her smile, and we stepped outside together.

As a high school teacher, I’ve attended countless commencements, telling students and often their parents (who feel as bittersweet and nostalgic as I did last Monday afternoon) that this really is a commencing as the word implies, for the cliché is true about the future being theirs. But with my own child? My youngest? It was not so easy. I reminded myself to heed those same words as I climbed the bleachers with my family and settled in beside our friends on that partly sunny day. Though the bittersweet emotions and nostalgia could not be ignored, I felt something stronger as I watched these graduates process in: hope.

Their childhood was defined the struggles of a worldwide pandemic and tragedy in communities nearby and around the world, but on this day, their faces shone with joy and brilliance no late afternoon sun could ever match. I have seen kindness, hope, and empathy in the character of Elizabeth’s friends and classmates, our neighbors’ children and the ones I taught in religious ed. Though occasionally wistful, they are more than prepared to allow this time to end and another to begin, and it is our time to let them show us what they can do, as hard it is might be to let them go.

As each name was called and each graduate sent forth, I remembered the words our deacon spoke at Mass that Sunday: “For all students who are completing their academic year, that they may use the knowledge and skills they attain to serve God’s people in truth and justice. We pray to the Lord.” Though they are not all Catholic, I see in them a desire to do just that. Graduation is the moment when they begin—they commence—to live what they have learned, and hopefully, with God as their guide, to do so with infinite love and eternal hope.

Elizabeth accepted her diploma, crossed the stage, and later, with synchronized precision, joined her classmates in turning the tassels and tossing the caps. Graduation has ended, but their future has commenced.