The sounds of graduation

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of celebrating graduation with another class of law students. Writing Listen Like a Lawyer has me thinking a lot about how lawyers and law students interact with conversation, voice, and sound. Thus I approached this year’s graduation with a particular focus on sound.

Flickr/Yovany Alas
Flickr/Yovany Alas

Graduation ceremonies are memorable for so many reasons. The sun rises, and faculty and students don their velvet-corded regalia. There is something about wearing that beret with the yellow tassel. Maybe the hat changes the way sound conducts into the ears? I can certainly hear the tassel brushing against the velvet whenever my head moves. Likewise the dark heavy fabric of the gown whispers with every movement.

And then there is the ceremony itself. At the law school where I teach, graduation always starts with a rousing prelude of bagpipes. If the true sign of intelligence is, as Fitzgerald said, the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind and retain the ability to function, then bagpipes are a musical intelligence test: screeching yet sonorous, grating yet glorious. When the pipers stop, their last hiss of muscular breath dies away. The silence that follows is sanctified.

And then, the speeches. Fed through a huge sound system, the voices echo as statements from the podium ring out through amplifiers. Experienced speakers project short sentences deliberately and then pause, letting those sentences expand and settle on the ears of hundreds or thousands in the audience. Inexperienced speakers — for example, students — may speak too quickly and audibly shuffle their notes at the podium. Yet their flushed faces and nervous laughter give us all a moment to appreciate youth and their accomplishment. The faculty and family laugh at their jokes and silently send well wishes toward them and all the graduates seated in rows.

And then there is the reading of the names. It is . . . interminable. Looking from page to page in the program to search where we are in the sequence, audience members including faculty sit, wriggle, writhe, fidget, and wait. One can see students, family, and faculty alike cycle between attentive body language, distracted fidgeting, and a kind of numb surrender. As the reading of the names goes on. Each name is so special to the person hearing it. And to their families and friends, of course. Of course. I absolutely love hearing my former students’ names. But together in minute upon minute upon minute, the names start to run together.

But then there are . . . the cowbells! And the ululations! And the kazoos and vuvuzelas! The sounds of celebration lend a festive air and give everyone a focus and even a chuckle among the onslaught of name after name after name. This year, the loving outburst from the audience: “That’s my sister!!!”

My student memories of graduation are more visual than auditory. I can remember how I checked my mortarboard in the mirror because it kept tipping, how the stages looked with speakers and administrators arrayed in their finery, and how the sun seemed to shine just a little bit brighter and the clouds to look a bit puffier than on another typical beautiful day. And to a degree, I can remember the essence of what they said. (Okay maybe not this speech, which somehow was bland enough to warrant coverage years later in the Onion.)

Although the sounds blur and are mostly forgotten, the sounds of the day contribute to a vivid sensory experience that makes a unique memory. And there is one word, repeated over and over in so many voices, in small groups and in large circles, in a parent or mentor’s murmur into the ear of a velvet-capped graduate: “Congratulations.”


Thanks to Jenn Mathews for reviewing an earlier version of this essay.