It sure looked and felt like Dallas. A lot of concrete, few trees, and plenty of space. The buildings looked somewhat lonely in the middle of this huge undeveloped tract. It was the sprawling campus of the University of Texas at Dallas, North of Campbell Road in Dallas, Texas. The plans were truly Texas when this enormous piece of land became the University in 1973. The geo-planners of the time have not, however, accomplished their original goals – bigness, brashness, and perhaps even a football team. Along the way, Texas oilmen got greedy, a state awash in oil cash fueled land speculation, Reagan taught us to trust unquestionably the entrepreneur and private markets, our tax base eroded, and you know the rest. Nonetheless, over the past 17 years, 17,000 people have graduated from this place.
I attended the 17th graduation where my wife Caroline received a degree 29 years after she first stepped into a college classroom. I didn't particularly want to go, the kids slept in, and the camera immediately malfunctioned. It was a humid morning with huge thunderclouds and the constant threat of the prairie turning to mud at a moment's notice. We gathered in a concrete courtyard surrounded by concrete buildings – there was no ivy in sight – but there were several thousand people filling the vast courtyard. I was astonished and immediately moved. It was one of those wonderful times for me when I seemed to be part of a place, to feel emotions through others that I deny myself. (Maybe I can change that.)
The procession began. A brass quartet of some sort struck up Pomp and Circumstance. I was perhaps a hundred yards from the stage on the flat even concrete floor. The stage was raised just four or five feet so there was little perspective and it was difficult to see. While thoroughly enjoying the mood and emotion around me – people straining to look, shouting at a graduate in the procession, shoving for position for the right picture – I held back, concerned somehow of being like them. I missed Caroline in the procession.
There were over 600 graduates in the class of 1990, the vast majority of which showed up. The procession also included the 20% of the faculty – with impressive degrees from everywhere: Oxford, Harvard, Berkeley – who were unlucky enough to have it be their lottery year to attend. I suppose there were even a few who wanted to be there.
The speakers began. The president, concerned about the rain, said something to the effect that he wanted to make it quick. The commencement speaker was James Zumberge, the president of the University of Southern California and the former president of SMU. He reigned at SMU during the 70's; as he was introduced I thought of football and scandals. I sat back with the expectation of someone capturing the moment. He didn't. He talked about the growth of the school, the numbers, fundraising, the prospects for a 4-year undergraduate program beginning next fall, and honest-to-God, the possibility of a football team. He talked of the "mature" student who attended UTD – the average age was over thirty, the average hours per semester were nine, many worked days and studied nights, and sort of suggested that with the coming of a four-year undergraduate curriculum, legitimacy was just around the corner. To me, this comments completely missed the point.
There were 600 soon-to-be graduates sitting before the speaker. Each of their lives had been touched by this experience and many had undergone profound change. I wanted the speaker to recognize the depth of that educational experience which, through Caroline, I had personally witnessed. The few students I knew – Caroline at the head of the list – examined the material assigned to them with a passion. They studied and talked and worried about Kafka and Faulkner, Aristotle and Plato, Mann and Goethe, Nietchze and Freud as though they really existed and really wrote those things. They brought a realism to their studies far removed from what I recall of my college days as a post-adolescent. It seems to me this was education as it should be. The speakers, however, missed it all in their futile search for a bigger and better university.
It was Caroline's turn to walk across the stage. Although I learned long ago not to try to read her mind, I've known her for 24 years and on this day I imagined what she was thinking. I suppose she first thought of walking steadily across the stage, shaking hands firmly with the dispenser of diplomas, looking him in the eye, and smiling. Poise and dignity are important. At another level, I bet she was experiencing this ritual conclusion on a more conceptual level, as I was. The end to a significant chapter of a life. The symbolism and tradition of the moment; the link to the millions of graduates who have gone before. The work it took to get there. Although on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis much of the study, writing, and thinking was drudgery, in this final scene, the ritual elevated the effort and accomplishment to a level of grandeur.
As I half stood in my chair to see, Caroline confidently walked across the stage, received her diploma, and exited. There were still several hundred to go. I wandered down the side of the crowd, much closer to the stage. I enjoyed watching the expressions on the faces and again imposed my imagination to create their stories. There were a sprinkling of Asians, Blacks and Hispanics. Many had several friends and family members in the audience who would boisterously demonstrate as they walked across the stage. A woman, perhaps in her mid-60's, sitting next to me in her Sunday best, accompanied by her husband dressed in clean cowboy, clanged a cowbell as her student received his diploma.
I actually felt a sense of hope and realized how crucial hope is. A side of me wanted to say "so what"; this brief ceremony will pass, and all of their lives will have the complications, disappointments, hurts, and futilities familiar to us all. I allowed myself, however, to resist the temptation and experience the emotion of the moment. (Are these emotions eternal, am I being fooled one more time, do they have any reality?)
The ceremony was over, we quietly left. I said little to Caroline about my intense experience of the morning. UTD may grow and prosper, hell, it may even have a winning football team. But to me it is a place that has already achieved its true goal of educating and expanding the world of its "mature" students who approach the task with such intensity and seriousness of purpose. I don't know if the university will accomplish the promise of its leaders, as they see it, but I do know that education happened there.