01 Jun Graduation
This afternoon we had a little personal graduation ceremony for our daughter outside of our home with some friends. I gave a short speech about ritual and transitions that I wanted to share here. Her speech was great and we are very proud of her.
I grew up in this house and I graduated from high school over 30 years ago. Our class was the first to graduate in the dean dome and I don’t remember a thing about it. I don’t even have any pictures. Many of you were there and now we’re here with our own kids. The day after we graduated, The Klan marched here in Chapel Hill on Franklin Street, and I that was my first photo shoot. I went up there with Juan after waking up at his house after some kind of graduation party that I also don’t really recall.
This class, which was born in the aftermath of 9/11 and is graduating in the middle of a pandemic and a complete cultural revolution, faces a much more complex reality than we did. At the time that march felt fairly insignificant. Truthfully, it felt like a last gasp of a group that was decimated; a sad posse of dead end losers. At the moment it didn’t seem to have a profound effect on my life, but in retrospect it was foundational in terms of setting forth on a path of documentation.
When I graduated from high school and went off to college I had a basic understanding that I wanted to be a photographer. Still, I knew that I was going to college not so much to learn about photography as I was to learn about wisdom. In our family academics were very important, but I wasn’t all that interested in academics. This didn’t lead to a lot of conflict, but it did create some disagreement about what path in life I should take. My father was a psychologist and my mother was a social worker, so they were very thoughtful about human behavior and interaction. They were both Jewish, but we did not have much real discussion about the stories and rituals of that faith. My mother pushed for more ritual, but my father was deeply cynical about pomp and circumstance, and I was left wanting for more understanding. In college I ended up being a religious studies major simply because I took classes about these things that were of interest of me, and it’s that background that also shaped all of my work.
I loved and respected my father dearly, but I don’t think he always felt so respected. History tends to repeat itself, and my daughter and I now struggle with some of the same patterns. This was especially true after college, when my father pushed me to follow a more standard, or stable path, like graduate school. While my parents created some academic pressure on their children, my daughter Fiona has created her own for herself. We’ve actually begged her to care less about grades. Still she worked incredibly hard, and she likely would’ve been one of the 20 valedictorians in her class had her English teacher giving her 70 on a paper that I helped her with, rather than a 69, which pushed her grade to a B. Fiona doesn’t see a problem with this zealous attention to grading on a rubric, which is admirable, but to me the way she graded didn’t take into consideration Fiona‘s passion or creativity. I’m also proud of her that she’s able to let it go even though it meant a lot to her at the time.
As my 20s became my 30s, and I was able to create a more solid footing in the world, I asked my father to work with me on a book that was essentially about how a loss of important rituals in our lives creates impediments to navigating transitions in our relationships. I hoped that working on this book would help us to transition from a parent child relationship to one that was a little bit more peer based.
We worked on it, but we didn’t fully see eye to eye. He wanted it to be more academic, or formal, and I wanted it to be more conversational and universal. So it floundered, but the process bring us closer together, and it helped us to transition to a more mutual respectful place. While my father’s cynicism was passed on to me, I do take these rituals more seriously than he did, and I see this event here today as a way to welcome Fiona into the world of adulthood. Fiona asked me to read her speech in advance, and while I made some small edits, it came out fully formed for 3 AM to 4 AM last night. There are many things I have told her that she resisted as I tried to communicate them. They were mostly acknowledged in her speech; I heard her message of respect loud and clear, and it’s meaningful and acknowledged
I’m sure that we will still have our share of conflicts, and navigating the pathway into higher education is going to be a rocky path given the tumult in our culture, but we’re both here for that and I’m happy that will be able to do it together.As Fiona mentioned, all of the people here have been important in her life, and even more so in mine. If I had a religious, or spiritual community, this would be at, so I’m very thankful to have you all here as a part of this important ritual.
POSTSCRIPT – I had a hard time getting through the last paragraph. Every time that I give a speech it seems like I cry. I get emotional during rituals, and almost every time I read something it’s at a wedding, a funeral, or an event like this. I do think that the ritual was important and transformational. Our daughter is taking a gap year in a moment of chaos, and that is making me emotional as well.