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Enduring outdoor commencements

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books: The Confident Writer, a grammar-based college textbook; From the Grove to the Stars, a centennial history of West Virginia State College; More than Penny Candy and Beyond the Apple Orchard, both anthologies of her essays. She is a columnist for The Charleston Daily Mail and The State Journal. She is also a regular essayist for Now & Then, a scholarly publication published by East Tennessee State University. Contact Dolly at ritewood@aol.com.

The sun pounded down on us for almost an hour, and we had only just begun. Sitting on metal folding chairs that formed long rows on the college campus, we faculty members and graduates endured a 100-degree temperature. Our black robes held heat in the same way a Thermos keeps coffee hot. I watched small rivulets of perspiration running down the necks of red-faced male professors in front of me.

To estimate the length of the ceremony, I tried to count the number of graduates, but they melded together in a shimmering mirage. They would have their names called, and then each would walk across the makeshift stage to reach for that coveted diploma. Before they had their shot at the program, however, there would be much pomp and circumstance.  We would participate in the pledge of allegiance, bow our heads during an ever-so-generic prayer and then move our lips to the school song. Having a hot time in the old town, we members of the sweltering audience would witness the conferring of honorary doctoral degrees. There would be the lengthy introductions of each recipient and after that the introduction of the speaker and then the speech itself. If we hadn't fainted by the end of the program, we would finally witness the conferring of degrees. Knowing how important the day was to each graduate — and I did know — I tried to remain enthusiastic, but during that commencement, I felt like a parched desert wanderer.

The academic robe traces its roots back to the 12th century. Clerics taught university classes, and the robe was designed to keep clerics warm because classrooms had no heat. In more than 900 years, we still haven't come up with a "cool" robe. In fact, each of us who had earned the master's or doctor's degree had to wear a hood that added additional warmth. The hoods were originally used as scarves to keep the clerics' necks warm. On that day many of my colleagues' necks were burning and still perspiring.

Then there's the mortarboard.  Each year, I watched as the women professors stood in front of a mirror trying to keep those babies on their heads.  Those who forgot bobby pins ran up and down the halls begging for clips, hatpins, bubble gum — anything — that would prevent their mortarboards from falling off their heads. Then, there was the tassel, always the tassel. Invariably, several professors would ask on which side of the mortarboard the tassel should hang. The only way I remembered was that it should hang on the same side as my wedding ring.

Nearing the merciful end of the ceremonies, the graduates had their degrees collectively conferred, and it was at that exact moment that they were allowed to switch their tassels from the right side to the left, signifying that they had earned their degrees. According to tradition handed down from the 1100s, once a graduate wears his or her tassel on the left side, he or she is thus empowered in some way.  Each year, my wish for the graduates was that they would not be working at a fast-food chain and that, instead, they could find employment providing them with a good living. I also hoped they could actually read, write and count. Unfortunately, I saw many of them flipping burgers in fast-food restaurants. My best wishes for them were often in vain. So much for tassel empowerment.

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