UNLIKE many rituals, there are no guidebooks for the rite of passage that we call commencement.
We have manuals and "how-to" books for watching operas, planning weddings and tasting wines along with "books for dummies" on everything from fitness walking to NASCAR racing. But we have no written words to direct or guide us through the joyous solemnity of commencement - or the American way of graduating.
After 44 years of commencements, I've learned one or two things about this celebration of both endings and beginnings - and how to survive them for long periods. Memories of my own first commencement are limited to the warmth of my new suit during that summer ceremony on the Illinois plains.
When I began teaching at Hiram College in 1958, I joined my colleagues in the faculty procession for my first view from the collegial platform. I have subsequently watched thousands of graduates and their families and friends celebrate this ritual of passage in spring, summer and winter.
Commencement is a ceremony infused with a great deal of meaning that varies from school to school - large or small, secular or non-secular, East Coast or California. However, there are certain shared elements in all commencements: familiar music, the procession of faculty and candidates, the wearing of the scholar's gown to symbolize equality. It doesn't matter what you've got on underneath; candidates are not measured by external factors such as dress or income, but are welcomed into the community of academics based on the merit of their intellectual endeavors alone.
Appropriate role models are chosen for recognition at commencement and given the opportunity to share their collective wisdom, hence the "laying on of tongues."
Early in my teaching career, I was lucky enough to receive some great advice on speechmaking, "Keep it short."
On reflection, the most successful speeches are the seemingly spontaneous ones that begin with the words, "I'm not going to give a speech ... "
Philanthropist and long-time Maryland state Board of Education member Walter Sondheim mesmerized the audience with his "four or five points that I wasn't going to include in the speech that I wasn't going to give." There is something about "not speaking" that makes people want to sit up and listen a little more carefully.
Along with the speaking rituals come the rituals of physical actions and repeated gestures - the crossing of the stage, the shaking of hands, standing up in unison, flipping the tassel on the mortarboard from one side to the other. In all these meaningful elements, the focus is always on the student - the center of the action.
During part of commencement my focus on the student narrows to a part of each student - the "web" between the thumb and forefinger. I've often been asked if my hand gets tired after shaking so many hands.
Now that I've perfected the technique of thrusting my hand into the web of the candidate's hand, my right hand is fine. But after 32 hours of commencement ceremonies, my right foot sometimes gives me trouble. Because I am constantly moving forward with my left foot to greet the next candidate, my right foot tends to go to sleep. In shaking hands, I've also encountered another occupational hazard that has grown in popularity in recent years - the thumb ring.
Members of the platform party watch for familiar students to give them a special wink or an occasional hug. Some spend time studying the latest fashion in footwear. In the 1960s it was dignified dress shoes and high heels; the 1970s brought boots and sandals. This year the fashion is chunky sandals with thick soles, or casual shoes.
As the candidates proceed across the stage, the variety of expressions and demeanors fascinate me. Some students look scared to death - and they make it across - while others fairly dance across the stage.
Each year and every commencement brings human interest stories - the couple in their 80s graduating together, the 14-year-old graduate, the student triumphing over cerebral palsy, the mother graduating after 13 years of college classes. Every commencement also brings families together to share the defining moment. Differences are set aside to concentrate on applauding the achievements of the graduate.
We celebrate the intellectual accomplishments of our students and friends and family who have supported them. We do so with all the solemnity and reverence befitting such an occasion; but the joy of celebrating this rite of passage comes straight from the heart. The true guidebook does not need to focus on the ritual but on the journey of each individual.
Hoke L. Smith will retire July 1 as president of Towson University, a position he has held since 1979.