I would like to take this opportunity to thank my MFA students and the citizens of Newark, New Jersey for teaching me the value of my education. I’d always valued what I learned in school, but never gave myself any credit for having gone to school and completed the degree. When I left for school, it was clear that most people in my life thought it was a waste of time. One person compared it to “getting a degree in basketball.” This wasn’t said in a cruel way, more as a warning. My daddy thought I was basically being bourgeois. (See the “cotton” scene in Leaving Atlanta.) I am not mad about this. After all, the MFA is a fairly new degree and the idea of a terminal Masters is hard to get your head around for a lot of people in the academy.
Add to this that my parents are extremely modest people. If they had a motto it would be “We do not make a big deal of things.” They both finished their PhDs in the 60s– and this a huge deal. Black Phds in the 60s! Did they march in their graduations? Nope. Are their degrees framed, uh-uh.
So when I finished my MFA, it never occurred to me order invitations or to ask anyone to come to the ceremony. After all, it wasn’t a big deal. I never even picked up the forms to order a cap and gown. It just wasn’t a big deal. What I didn’t admit even to myself that it wasn’t just the ceremony I was blowing off, it was my entire experience and accomplishment. I had my degree in basketball. Whatever.
Fast forward ten years. Now I teach in the MFA at Rutgers Newark. I have had the honor and pleasure of directing brilliant people who are working on brilliant projects and I am crazy proud of them. I respect the writing itself, but I also respect the dedication and sacrifices they made to get the degree. When I signed off on the theses this year, I made sure “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background. Sometimes, I think I even embarrass them with my enthusiasm.
As I blogged a few weeks back, I bought my academic regalia. I went all out, buying custom with all the bells and whistles. So yesterday, I put it on– hat and everything– and walked to the subway to go to my students’ graduation.
God Bless the citizens of Jersey City and Newark!
I live in a gentrifying neighborhood in Jersey City. There are yuppies with their arugula, but there are still a lot of regular people– mostly blacks folks, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants who work hard every day. These folks all offered warm congratulations to me as I walked to the subway station. Someone shook my hand, another one speculated that my mother must be proud. I felt a little guilty accepting all this love, after all it wasn’t my graduation day, but I smiled and said thank you.
Once I got on the PATH train, it was like I was the queen of public transportation! People with accented English offered well wishes. Again more hand shaking. A child stroked the velevet trim of my robe. Finally, I admitted to a man dressed in stained coveralls that I wasn’t really graduating. He said to me, “Congratulations, still.” He gestured at my regalia, “If you got it on, you must supposed have it on. You must have earned it.”
I know this is corny, but I teared up.
Once in Newark, the faculty lined up to march about four blocks to the ceremony.
Rutgers-Newark is the most diverse undergraduate campus in the country. Black and brown faces made up almost half of the procession of eager graduates. The faculty, however, has not quite caught up, so I am still distinct in the line. As I marched, black folks lining the streets gave me thumbs up. I heard,”You go girl,” called out. I smiled and waved like Miss America. It felt great.
Then, I started thinking about my students and how proud I was of them and how hard they worked. It occurred to me that I had worked just as hard. Finally, I was able to let some of the glow I saw in their faces, reflect back on me.
Heading to the auditorium yesterday, a woman pointed me out to her little girl, then she called out. “Hold your head up, sister. Everybody don’t make it that far.”
I smiled, and did as I was told.
(some snapshots of our amazing graduates.)