Like a lot of parents, I will soon be watching a robed offspring march across a stage at a college commencement. While the particulars of the graduation ceremony vary -- in my case it will be our 22-year-old exiting the Johns Hopkins University at Homewood Field -- the experience elicits many common emotions.
One is disbelief. Until the kid actually gets the diploma -- which at some institutions does not happen until after the graduation ceremony -- I remain skeptical that the details have worked out. I have lingering doubts that all the required courses have been taken, that the library fines have been paid, that there are no outstanding warrants from the authorities.
This skepticism has more to do with my paternal mindset than my son's behavior. He has done well in college, but to me, he is still a kid, someone who has yet to clean his long abandoned bedroom.
Another emotion is relief. Ever since his mother and I left him at Bolton Hill Nursery School, squalling with the other 3-year-olds, the journey to wisdom has taken twists and turns. We survived marathon school projects, such as constructing a replica with toothpicks of the fort at Point Lookout; we weathered the surprises of the teenage years, anything from broken bones to a car stuck in the Irvine Nature Center mud to the dinner-table announcement -- dropped a few days before high school graduation -- that he had been tapped to write and deliver the senior speech.
No sooner was he settled in college than he, like a lot of juniors, decided to go overseas, to study economics for a semester at Oxford. There, among other educational endeavors, he tried to teach Tony Blair's son and a few other British lads at Lady Margaret Hall how to play American football.
Such adventures come at a cost, which is something fathers of graduates think about. When Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick attended the graduation ceremony of his older daughter, Aubree, at Northwestern University, he could not resist running the numbers -- multiplying the number of graduates by the $40,000 a year cost of the education. "It was impressive," Billick said. He pointed out, however, that his second daughter, Keegan, would be starting her college career next fall at Ohio State.
I called Billick because he will speak at my son's graduation. A few years ago, Billick, who has an undergraduate degree in communications from Brigham Young University, delivered the commencement address at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
One of the themes he likes to strike in these speeches, he told me, is that the graduates have an obligation to their parents to use their talents wisely. "They have a responsibility that is as binding as any contract," he said. He also likes to remind the graduates that they "owe a few people" for the opportunity to get a good education.
As a parent, I liked the sound of the phrase "owe a few people." Maybe I am dreaming, but I like to think I am about to enter the "payback" phase of life.
A skilled commencement speaker sums up triumphs, offers advice and keeps the audience from falling asleep.
"I have forgotten how crushing dull these ceremonies are," comedian Jon Stewart told the 2004 commencement crowd at the College of William and Mary.
Stewart went on to advise the graduates to "Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may."
Finally, I feel a sense of loss at commencement. My wife, a Hopkins professor, attends graduation ceremonies every year, but I only show up for ones that involve my kids. At every such ceremony from nursery school to college, I have had the feeling that my parental duties were being downsized. I once literally carried this kid to school, now some 20 years later, as he prepares to take his first job, and to move out of town, I think my role is reduced to consultant on matters of car care. So it goes.
During difficult stretches of parenthood, those long nights dealing with a sick kid, or big homework assignment, or a roaming teenager, life with your kids seems to move at a painful pace. But later it speeds up. In a twinkling, you are sitting at a college graduation, swelling with pride, trying to stop time, or at least grab a few decent snapshots.