According to the calendar, it’s the middle of May, a time known for warming weather, increased daylight, and the start of the commencement ceremony season for establishments of higher learning. Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin, which conducted its commencement exercises the day I write this. Naturally, graduation is a momentous occasion for those getting their diplomas; it’s the culmination of 4 years (give or take a few) of blood, sweat, tears, and lots of hard work. Not to mention a few parties and jump arounds on the side.
If you’ve ever experienced the graduation experience — whether it be high school, the university level (such as my sister, a UW alum), or technical college (that would apply to me) — commencement usually includes at least three main components:
- The cap and gown. It’s the uniform that’s de rigueur for the occasion; stepping up to the dais for your diploma without one is equivalent to loosely wearing a bathrobe on stage, something that would certainly draw gasps from the audience. I’ve forgotten about the importance of the tassel after all these years, especially if it should be moved left-to-right or right-to-left (it’s the latter, I’ve been told), as well as when to move it. When graduating high school, we couldn’t turn the tassel until the principal said, “congratulations, you’ve graduated;” at our technical school graduation, we never received the cue to turn the tassel.
- The processional. When the creaky sound system cues up “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduates enter the arena/stadium/gym/whatever. At my high school ceremony, we were required to make our entrance in a specific way, stepping forward one foot at a time to the cadence of the music (“left foot forward, feet together, right foot forward, feet together”). The school principal really drilled this into our heads during rehearsals, making us do it twice while giving us that “Don’t make me flunk you out of school right now” look and adding a “These kids are going to embarrass this town” tone of voice. He needn’t have worried; we did walk slow and sort-of-to-the-beat the night of the ceremony (though the audience really couldn’t tell underneath our long gowns).
- The speeches. Oh yes, the speeches. Before any graduate gets their diploma, they (and the audience) must sit through endless speechifying from the principal, the chancellor or administrator, or other assembled dignitaries who want to get a word in edgewise. There’s almost always a guest speaker to deliver the commencement address. Said speaker is usually a local dignitary, politician (*ugh*), politician who’s running for office (*ugh*), or famous celebrity. More often than not, they have no actual connection to the school; they’re just someone the powers-that-be believe has meaningful thoughts to say or will keep the attention of the graduates. At my technical school graduation, the commencement speaker was the Attorney General of Wisconsin (*snooze*). I can’t remember who the speaker was when my sister graduated from UW, but he or she likely wasn’t of the stature of the person UW chose for this year’s commencement speaker, Katie Couric. (Yes, the Katie Couric!)
If you ever manage to stay awake during graduation speeches, notice how they all have a congratulatory or inspirational tone, with words like “Congratulations, graduates!” or “Go forth into the world” or “Oh, the places you’ll go.” The speakers are either very articulate in writing a speech or get lots of help from speechwriters in tailoring their speech to the graduates (usually more of the latter than the former). You may notice, too, that commencement speakers don’t always express thoughts that would actually pertain to the graduates at a time like this; this especially applies if the speaker is, as noted above, a politician or political candidate who’ll use their main lines to state their stance on issues for the media covering the event to hear. (“Today, I’m announcing a government initiative… oh, yeah, and congratulations to the graduates.”) Perhaps the best speeches combine the speakers personal ideas and forward-thinking thoughts with current issues they may share with what graduates encountered at school or may encounter in the future; Ed Helms’ commencement speech at the University of Virginia from just last night is a perfect example (wow, did he take Rolling Stone to the woodshed).
All this has gotten me to thinking about the words I would deliver if I were in Katie Couric’s heels this afternoon. I am not a good public speaker (I’m one to deliver more stammers than inspiration while at the podium), nor could I afford an army of writers that can help form my thoughts into words. And, of course, there’s the issue of a guy in a dress presenting important thoughts while the school’s high and mighty (“We invited who?!“) listen on. In my defense, I’d be wearing the same fancy graduation gown they’d be wearing, so the issue of clothing underneath the robe would be a wash; and besides, my true audience would be the graduates listening in front of me.
Having said all that, if I were to present a speech to a graduating class, I would definitely try to tailor my speech to them, keeping my thoughts positive, inspiring, and geared toward experiences in life. (Maybe the dignitaries will learn something from my words, too.) Perhaps my speech would include these thoughts:
(clears throat) (squirms at whiny feedback from the PA system)
Distinguished graduates of the Class of 2015:
Congratulations! You’re graduating today! Way to go, all of you! Today is the day you’ve waited 4 years for, give or take a year or so. When you started school, you were probably confident and optimistic yet nervous. Some of you came to this school from right around the corner or far from the family you had to leave behind. Yet you persevered, putting extra effort towards the mission you sought to accomplish; you overcame any doubts and fears and difficulties, leading to the position you’re in right now, that of graduate of this fine institution.
Yet today, you may be just as confident and optimistic and equally nervous as when you first came here, concerned about where life will take you now that you are graduating. It’s okay to be nervous. I mean, look at me. I’m a guy in a dress. I get dolled up and prance around before the camera in the privacy of my home, yet move me from the security of home to the great wide open and I become a bundle of nerves. If anything, I should be more nervous than you right now as I deliver this speech; matter of fact, I’m sweating bullets. Yes, I’m nervous, but I am also confident and optimistic. Just like you.
As you go forth from these hallowed halls and immaculate grounds, know that the paths you will take may not be as hallowed and immaculate as what you’re leaving behind. That’s okay. I’ve gone down paths in life that weren’t fulfilling or were just plain wrong, just as some of the paths you may have taken in the past and will do so in the future. Yes, I have made and will make my own share of mistakes, just as you will in your lives. So don’t let graduation be the day you stop learning. Take the lessons learned from your own wrong paths so that you may right your own ship. Learn from your mistakes so that you can make better decisions. Listen to and learn from others, for their experiences can help provide guidance in your own lives.
As you go forth, know, too, that you shouldn’t be complacent. I may not be a Madison native, but if I hadn’t have taken the initiative and accepted an exciting employment opportunity in this city, I probably still would be living a dead end life in Green Bay, working who knows which low-paying job, nor would I have led this wonderful life in a city as generally open-minded as Madison, where a crossdresser like me can really strut her stuff. Know today that your graduation is just Step One in your lives. Most of you will not get the job you desire right away, but don’t let that discourage you. That low-level job doing who-knows-what in Who Knows Where is just another step in furthering your own lives and ambitions; it sure is better than crashing in your parents’ basement doing nothing but eating day-old pizza and watching some old show on Netflix a zillion times over.
I definitely want to impart to you this thought today: Always be open minded and supportive. I put on my clothes the same way all of you do, regardless if it’s a suit and tie or sundress and high heels. The fact that you’re listening to what I’m saying today shows that you’ve learned to think past labels. College life has opened your minds to things, ideas, and beliefs you were never aware of and never thought you’d entertain. The many people and experiences you will encounter after today will open your minds further. They may or may not be of a different race or gender than you; their bank account level may not be the same as yours; their sexual identities may or may not be the same as yours; and they may or may not come from the same background as you. Heck, they may not be related to you in any way. None of that should dissuade you from gaining insight from their experiences or sharing your stories with them. Never ever look down or show disdain at those who are not like you. Support them, for all they truly expect of you is to treat them the same way you expect yourselves to be treated — with respect.
Just as you should never forget to be ambitious, hopeful, and optimistic, as well as supportive, never forget to show sincerity and generosity in helping others. I am a very willing and generous volunteer to many causes, albeit in male mode and not in the fancy femme mode you see me in today. I am not dissuaded by the dress code or the pay rate — zero — involved with being a volunteer, nor should it hinder your own helpful spirit. Take time to help others in the community you may call home, be it a charitable organization or a little lady crossing the street. Volunteering can lead to so many opportunities in your lives, perhaps even the job you’ve put so much work in to seek.
With all that said, be happy today. Turn that tassel to the left. Throw that mortarboard up in the air. Jump in the air with joy. Celebrate this wonderful time with those you love. You’ve completed an incredible mission, one of many goals you will, with the same effort and fortitude you put in here, conquer in your bright futures. Congratulations, and good luck!