Class of 2014
A couple of events–one past and one pending–have me engaged in a fair amount of self-reflection. First: the past event. Over the weekend, I attended the college graduation of my youngest son Nathaniel, a weekend filled with pageantry and tears (mine), memorialized by iPhone pics and Facebook posts.
And in a few weeks, I will celebrate my 60th birthday, aka the pending event. A fact I find both irrefutable and troubling.
If you are anywhere close to this age, you’ll know that I grew up in an era–the 1960’s–when we were told never to trust anyone over the age of 30, forever branding youth with favor and fortune, a specialness that time couldn’t or wouldn’t taint. Except it did.
So here I am staring down number 60–a number I expected to reach thanks to good genes but did not expect to affect me very much. Except it does. So I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is and may have found the answer at my son’s graduation.
One of the most ritualistic of William & Mary’s commencement rituals occurs on Sunday, when the graduating seniors-–1300 of them this year – take their final walk as students across campus. The walk begins at the venerable Wren Building on “old campus” and wends its way to William & Mary Hall.
Roughly two thirds of the way, the students cross a wooden footbridge–Crim Dell Bridge –before they begin a final ascent through the woods to the Hall and their waiting families and friends. Apart from its picturesque setting which has made it the stuff of urban legends, the bridge symbolized to me a rite of passage as groups of seniors-cum-graduates joked and jostled their way across, posed for selfies, waved to distant cameras, and completed their journeys from childhood to adulthood.
The rest of the afternoon offered the usual in commencement fare with the usual mix of solemnity, jocularity and musicality, the latter courtesy of a fine William & Mary choir (I am partial to choral groups of all types). Some speeches dazzled and some humbled as each sounded the virtues of service, honor, purpose and community. Students were urged not to hold themselves back, to take their places in the world, to imagine what they could accomplish if they weren’t afraid.
In other words, calls to action to make a difference and change the world made to a group of young men and women who merely hours before one still thought of as… well… children.
Much is expected of the young and often it seems, not much of the old. Or what we commonly think of as old. Sixty usually qualifies. And pop culture–movies, television, and advertising–hasn’t helped. While it’s true that attitudes toward aging are changing (thanks to AARP, 50 is the new black), the advance of old age is generally not viewed as desirable and age discrimination, sadly, is alive and well.
What I discovered this past weekend, however, is that like much of life, it all boils down to choice. And like the newly minted graduates, I, too have choices. I can cross the bridge and embrace 60 and this next phase of my life full on with excitement and anticipation of the unknown or I can start to fold the tents, an option that is neither appealing nor likely.
One ritual I expected to experience over the weekend but didn’t is the graduation cap toss, emblematic of new beginnings. William & Mary, perhaps bowing to changing times and concerns for student safety (the corners of the mortarboard apparently hurt if they land on you) opted instead to launch several large green and gold (school colors) beach balls for the graduates to bat around before the ceremony came to its formal close.
Having no cap (or gown, for that matter), I’ll recall instead the toss of a famous knitted black and turquoise beret on the evening of Sept. 19, 1970.
I’m going to make it after all.