Friday, May 20, 2011

Archaized

Our college recognition ceremony is always a strangely disorienting experience. We dress up in the faux-Renaissance garb of a conventional American university. A brass band plays Renaissance music, Handel and Elgar. It takes place in a sombre church bursting with people in cheery summer attire. When the seniors process by, you wonder if you're at the wrong ceremony - the vast majority are students you've never seen or even heard of, certainly not taught. (This does make the glimpse of each familiar face a giddily joyous occasion.) At least there are speeches to confirm that this is Lang, one by the dean, one by a student, and one by a faculty member. (I gave the faculty one in 2006.)
Well, this year trumped them all. We were in a new church - the rather boxy Calvary-St. George's Episcopal at Stuyvesant Park, having outgrown the capacity of the church on our block, First Presbyterian. (This also meant we couldn't have a reception at college following; that was moved to last night instead, and poorly attended.) Faculty robed in the gloom of a high-vaulted stone side chapel engraved with the names of 19th century wardens and vestrymen, while students got in their kit in the "Choir Crypt." As we processed in, music seemed to be coming from the crypt too - did it take a dean who's a classical musician to replace live with recorded fanfares? Faculty got to sit in rows behind the place where the altar would ordinarily stand, which gave a good view (above). But.

As speakers got up to speak, starting with the dean, it became clear we weren't going to be sharing much. What one of my religious studies colleagues described as the "Episcopal sound system" amplified their words over the pews, but when they hit the east wall they bounced back, blurring the words beyond recognition for us behind the pulpit. Since I was visible, in the second row, I tried to react appropriately whenever there seemed to be a joke anyway, but really, I understood nothing! (I did make out, I think, the student speaker saying "to tell the truth, I'm really scared," and the faculty speaker warning against doing something involving NYU!)

It wasn't quite as bad as the year they put the faculty behind a wooden screen, but it was very strange to hear the students and their families laughing and applauding speeches we couldn't make out. (It feels like a "graduation under water," one of my colleagues said.) As a faculty member you feel yourself fading firmly into the past during this ceremony, but this took the cake. It's as though we weren't even part of it, just part of the archaic furnishings the occasion demanded. (When the dean asked the students to thank the faculty and they jumped to their feet and whooped and clapped, it took us a while to notice that it was directed at us!) And then, there being no reception, we marched out as more music was piped in. We slipped out of our rented gowns and into the street, moist from a rain which must have fallen during the ceremony.

But this wasn't about us! Congratulations Melissa, Terese, Nate, Patrick, Rachel, Helia, Sonny, Dylan, Sandy, Aidan, John, Jaz, Samson, Geoff, Luke, Ali, Charlie, Liz, Kingsley, Kaleb, Jamie, Kam, Celine, Josh, Ra, Jordan, André, Richard and Zach!

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