Put on that polyester gown and walk!

It’s May again, and nothing says May like a good graduation.

I’ve always been a sucker for graduations. I love the ritual: the music, the boring speeches, the procession of students walking across the stage to shake the president’s hand, the cheer of friends and relatives, the flight of caps thrown in careless elation and the post-ceremony masses of embraces, tears and selfies.

I can recall my first graduation: kindergarten. I wore a cute white cap and gown that I wanted to keep. I don’t remember much of the ceremony, though. For sixth-grade graduation I remember hating having to wear knee high socks with my first pair of high heels. Who ever thought that was a good idea?

After what seemed a short time later, I gave the Valedictorian address at my high school graduation, a boring diatribe devoid of inspiration. Our school organized an elegant graduation ball after the ceremony. Students walked individually down a curved staircase wearing long white ball gowns (I designed mine) or tuxes. Once at the bottom of the stairs, each received a flower from the principal. Like society debutantes, we danced a waltz with our father or mother. So kitsch!

My college graduation was particularly exciting. I was the first one in my family to attend college and the first one from my country to graduate from that college. My parents, my most faithful spectators, beamed with pride as I walked past them to pick up my diploma. My Spanish professor, Disnarda Norniella, threw the mother of all graduation parties for me.

Let’s face it: Ceremony and ritual are empty actions without spectators. Graduations are formal events that have no meaning without the presence of those we care for: our spectators. They are the ones who truly make the ritual a festive occasion. I always had a small troupe of spectators: my parents, my little sister and my tías (aunts) leading the way, closely followed by friends, teachers, host parents and relatives.

These individuals clicked cameras, catered parties, bought gifts and cheered loudly. They arranged outfits, drove guests and made sure that pomp and ceremony flowed smoothly. They made me feel loved, proud and special. They boasted, bragged and called everyone in the phone book to share the triumphs of their favorite graduate.

However, spectators have been with us the entire time not only on graduation day and certainly not only when the sun shone. Our spectators have stuck through the thick and thin. They checked homework, ironed uniforms and woke us up three times each morning. Spectators attended PTA meetings, teacher conferences, dance performances and sports events year after year.

They taught, mentored, advised and screamed every time you said you were going to quit. They picked you up at airports, wrote letters, told you to consider graduate school, drove you to the hospital in the middle of the night, fed you a warm meal when you were homesick and gave you a hug to get through the day.

They might be seated in the audience come graduation day or they might not be. You might remember their names or perhaps they have become blurry memories. Yet, they are nevertheless spectators that have helped you fight, watched you fall and given you a hand every step of the long, treacherous way.

Don’t take your ceremony and your spectators for granted. It might be another corny moment of family history, a stupid imposition of academia or a political, colonized ritual of society. Maybe it is. Maybe it will be. But that is NOT important.

Graduate: this is payback time. This is the important moment. In putting on the robe, you acknowledge every one of the spectators who has helped and ensured, in big or small ways, your achievement of another educational milestone.

This is the one simple gesture that will warm your grandma’s heart to the day she dies, that will light your babysitter’s eyes upon receiving her invitation in the mail and that will make your parents forget the endless nights with the colicky baby that you once were.

And yes. It might be uncomfortable: you might have to deal with the stuffy in-laws, the stepparents, your dad’s ugly girlfriend, nose-picking cousins or grandpa’s story retelling; or the hot hours in a dark robe; or the silliness of it all.

Tough. This is the small price you pay for an education.

So, graduate: Pick up that cheap, polyester cap and gown and wear it with pride. Wear it for everyone that chided and guided you along the way. Wear it for everyone who is watching you or wishes they could be with you on that day.

As for me, I will be seated with the faculty, smiling, overheated in my black velvet cap and gown that I wear like a Chanel.

I will be watching you and enjoying my favorite day as a professor.

– Mirzam Pérez, associate professor of Spanish