Although I have suffered my share in this world, I had never actually attended a college graduation.
And on the theory that no man has affliction enough (except he is made the better for it) I went this week to ceremonies at Georgetown University and am, therefore, a better man.
Now what happens at these things is this:
First, a baccalaureate mass, then a lunch for fellows who were graduated 50 years ago, then a procession of people getting degrees and a talk by a dignitary and then lots of parties.
You will recall "The Magic Flute" in which love and faith are tested, and found triumphant, through the ordeal of walking through sheets of fire.
The lovers would have cindered, except for a magical flute carried by the fellow. Every time a wave of flame threatened hell upon them, the flute sounded and fire fell back. Such is the talismanic virtue of righteousness.
Now what, you may speculate, is the magic talisman that fetches you safe through a graduation day and delivers you safe and sweet on the other side?
There are many magic talismans:
Humor. A sense that the day will end.
Vicarious delight in the young folk who are told by one speaker (not really a loon) they have made it. This is a major rite of passage for them, like tattooing their toes or fixing the septums of their noses so they can wear little bones in them.
The richness of the sensuous world. The lushness of the trees, the sound of champagne corks, the bursts and streamings of the mockingbirds.
The acquisition of new knowledge for oneself. I had not realized, for example, that they say AH-men when they sing and A-men when they pray. Same word, different pronunciation.
The joy of being present for grand events. We do not want to fall into the trap of missing grandeur merely because we want a cigarette, etc. You recall Mrs. Trollop who visited the first American settlement in which freed slaves worked to raise money to free other slaves. It was a singular social experiment, but the main thing Mrs. Trollop went on and on about was the state of the unpaved road. Looking back, we are annoyed with her, that she was so mired down in trifling details of her journey that she almost missed the significance of the great settlement she had come to see.
Now with so many talismans against pain, we all found the day excellent.
The flesh is, however, weak, and I did not hold out for the entire day. I had always wanted to see somebody get one of those good conduct medals that some schools hand out to old boys who have been very good indeed. This year the first one at Georgetown went to the governor of Arkansas, William J. Clinton. He may be president eight years hence. (The citation did not say so, but remember you first read it here). The opening lucubration on him:
"At 33, William Clinton is dramatic evidence that ambition to be of service coupled with a Georgetown formation quickly bridges the generation gap.
"He also is a symbol of the best of what Georgetown has aspired to achieve in education for leadership under its colors of blue and gray."
Etc. But you can see that such a man richly deserves an honorary degree.
Now I shall not duck (as many do) the bald fact that Georgetown is a Jesuit school. Jesuits are crafty, we all know that. They also have far more brains than most groups of men, and they can see way down the road.
The citation of the governor, for instance:
Gibberish, you might say. Do you think for one second the Jesuits don't know it? They mean for your hackles to rise as you hear it, or read it.
They know that learning is commonly set in motion by anger, by contempt, by indignation. They know you will instantly rewrite the citation for Clinton into English and be pleased.
And since you are pleased with your improvement on the original drivel, you may be encouraged to go on.
They know how to get your interest. They don't care what you think of them; their job is to get you to educate yourself, and they know how to bait you.
They have also installed (doubtless at incredible costs in patience and dollars) some sets of mockingbirds who have been trained to blast out of the trees at 40 miles an hour chasing each other. They fly in vast arcs, tremendous ellipses, uttering warlike cries. Then they bullet back into the trees and briefly sing and all the warts of the world fall off.
The Jesuits craftily contrast this with poor human singers below. The lesson teaches itself, which is the way Jesuits teach.
Below, the fat man stirs uneasily in his chair on the lawn, the steel legs sinking like Pisa and Venice on speed. Near him a plump mother abates her glows of pride long enough to question (for one terrible minute) whether the graduate was worth the pain of his setting forth, as Yeats once said.
The graduates, for their part, appeared young.
Their black robes were of a gauze material, which I think is similar to the cloth once used by my mother in making me both my wild Indian and William Tell outfits (for use in two different grammar school dramas).
One young woman, a free spirit, seemed to me to have little or nothing beneath her robe. One young man's tassel fell off his mortar board (he retrieved it) and I encourage him to resist the notion that this was an omen.
Two guests were almost killed by one champagne cork that sailed through the air, narrowly missing the two, and came to rest at the foot of a copper beech. This was after the mass, needless to say.
If you sat on a wood bench along a walkway, you could observe the graduates marching along to "Pomp and Circumstance" for half an hour. From a nearby parking lot various late-comers raced madly to join the group -- they had cut it a bit fine and will be telling you about it the next 50 years.
The Rev. Timothy S. Healy, S.J., the university president, had earlier addressed the graduating class of the University of Detroit in words more wonderful than any I have ever read or heard of for similar events.
He spoke of resistance to conformity and fraud (the two may possibly be related) and said we should not commit a social science.
Father Healy's comments are commonly plummed with quotations from masters and he usually credits the author (Auden thought up committing a social science, for example) unless it is very beautiful. But then he goes farther. Sometimes, I suspect he never sees anything except in the context of the beginning and the end of the world.
You go round and round, learning much and unlearning more, and finally get to where you started and know, for the first time, where that is.
Now you look at all those young faces -- average age 14 -- and think of all that's to come. I think I shall start attending graduation ceremonies regularly, to gloat at how much does not have to be borne now.
The solemn young, beneath the whirling fighting mockingbirds. The flushed faces of the guys racing to join the procession they almost missed.
Brave runners run. Oval track. Then back, to where they had begun. All breath is black, unless their songs are sun. The noon is afternoon then night comes on. The day is over when the fights are won.
Bright citadel where torches burn and turn by turn the ranks come on. The trumpets speak when princes come.
The birds up in the air squawking and squabbling and then a music to end all music. The humans below, grunting and sweating (Shakespeare) and then their music, too.
School is to help you get back where you are. School is to teach you music, right? A magic ocarina?
Even in jest it's wrong to tell the young (or the old) they've "made it."
There's nothing to make. There may be, if you rassle it hard enough, something to sing.