by Rachel Lloyd
Like most (if not all) of Clark’s 2020 graduates, I spent a large part of Sunday May 24th, the date of our virtual commencement, in front my computer. I had my laptop in front of me, but from my parents’ converted-garage, where I have been living since the start of this lockdown, there was a partially open skylight above me. I tilted my head back over the top my chair to look through the dirty glass, to look at the verdant leaves, awash in brushes of sunlight, rustling, waving. It is sunny, I thought. Perfect Commencement weather. What a sick joke. I looked though that skylight, out at the slowly summering world, telling myself that it did not matter how nice the weather was. My Commencement wasn’t outside. It is the way it is. Nature does not care that you are graduating today. It has a life of its own. Although I was sitting in front of my computer, wearing shorts and a collared shirt, looking through the skylight I could suddenly feel – as if in a dream or perhaps a premonition – how hot my graduation robes might feel on my shoulders as I sat under the sun, how clumsy the long pointed sleeves feel folded and bundled in my lap, how the mortarboard elastic grips my forehead, how the tassel hangs in my eyes. I longed for the unique pleasure of complaining about how long the gown was. I felt a delightful desire to fidget, to mess with the uncomfortable, rough, heavy clothes of a unique, once-in-a-lifetime day, the clothes I was not wearing. I looked back at my computer and saw the presenters wearing all their Commencement adornments, each with a notable addition: a mask.
The next day, my mom, stepdad, and grandmother threw me and my boyfriend, Noel (a graduating WPI student himself) who has been living with us in lockdown, a driveway Commencement. My family has set up five small tables with chairs, all six feet apart. Each group of my family who is not sheltering in place with us has an assigned table: my boyfriend’s parents, my dad and his girlfriend, my two older sisters and their boyfriends. My other sister, who lives in Chicago, joins us by Facetime. Each table holds personal bags of pretzels, string cheese, some granola bars, and bottles of water. I am staring through the kitchen window, watching my family arrive in their quarantine couplets, trying to remember what their skin feels like and how their voices sound after a long sigh, when my stepdad tells Noel and me to line up behind him.
“You two will have to share the mortarboard,” my stepdad tells us. I place it on my head, securing the elastic and adjusting the tassel as it clings to my eyelashes.
Pomp and Circumstance erupts hoarsely from small tinny speakers. “Let’s do this,” my stepdad whispers to us. He leads us out into the driveway. I copy his long self-important steps, my legs feeling somehow longer. We step in unintended rhythm with one another. We step outside one by one to clusters of applause and the lofty swells of Pomp and Circumstance. We step outside into high sunlight. Already, my head feels warm.
My stepdad, clad in his thick red and black PhD robes, stands at the top of our driveway behind a small table with a carboard box on top of it: a makeshift podium. He opens the box, almost drops the lid, recovers, blushing, and pulls out a stack of paper. He begins.
“I’d like to welcome everyone – graduates, family … and I think that’s all we got – to the Lexington annex of the Consortium of Worcester Colleges, Higher Institutes Project (aka COW CHIP). Thank you all for coming. Given the extenuating circumstances and the limitations of self-quarantine, we have taken upon ourselves to run today’s proceedings and force these two graduates to participate in them. Our list of illustrious participants is limited by the vagaries of social distancing. And since I’m the only one who has academic robes, I was unanimously selected by the faculty to preside over these ceremonies. Compared to previous commencements some of you have attended, I promise this will be shorter and you will be less likely to die of heat stroke, drown or be shot by the Secret Service.” My sisters will remind us later that all of these were potential dangers at each of their graduations: a sudden heat wave, a flash flood, a high profile commencement speaker. My stepdad does not mention that which, even in this driveway, could kill us.
He continues, “You and your generation will make the world a better place than you have found it. As our generation has given you President Donald Trump, a Global Pandemic, the worst economy since the Great Depression, impending climate crises, and a culture that rejects truth and embraces partisanship and tribalism, we have set the bar for you to make improvements very, very low. There is no need to thank us.”
From where I sit in the driveway, I can see the tomatoes my mother and I planted recently. Right now, they are vulnerably small green sprouts, almost weed-like, each surrounded by a tall square tomato cage that hints at the plants’ eventual size. My mother – who once plucked a leaf from a Japanese maple in a stranger’s yard in order to bring it to a garden store and buy one herself; who once described an astilbe flower as “the one that goes like this,” contorting her hands and arms into a vaguely floral shape; who would rather identify plants by color or by shape or by elaborate physical charades – knows the specific names of several types of tomatoes: Early Girl, Big Boy, Super Sweet 100. While she plants tomatoes, she always sings the same thing: “There’s only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” This is a springtime ritual. It comes with the sun. These plants do not know the importance of this driveway ceremony. They do not know how harshly love radiates from six feet apart. They know only how to grow towards light and bear red shiny fruit. They know only the warmth of the sun and how to swallow it whole.
I refocus my eyes on my stepdad as he says the final words of his speech, words after which he will announce my name and ask me to walk across the driveway and get a piece of paper upon which he has scribbled my mock degree, a driveway whose ground I have walked across innumerable times before, a driveway that this time will feel inexplicably different under me, somehow like a bowing wooden stage: “In conclusion, I have one final piece of wisdom that I have gained through hard-won and painful experience; I give this advice to save you from following along that same painful path. Use sunscreen.”