Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gradding.

Three years suddenly met in one day, in just a few hours, in fact.


7am, jam to the recently released Taylor Swift tune in the hotel room with the little sis – forget about those sleeping either side of your twin room, they should be awake for this magical day anyway, surely – splash freezing water on your face, zip up the sought-after dress and get set for the future. 
7:20am, tucking into poached eggs on toast with the mama, gulping down green tea and watching the morning sun light up the cathedral the other side of the glass.
8am, pick up gown and have hat attached.
8:07am, see a few of your favourite coursemates in the queue ahead of you and freak out massively, run up and hug each of them – despite the fact that you saw at least two of them in the hotel foyer with their families the night before. It's funny how you go from seeing someone every day, pretty much, to then seeing them next to never and therefore exploding with familiar joy when you see their face twice within twelve hours. It's more than you can cope with, in the best way.
8:25am, meet the charming ever-so-slightly camp fella who will be spending his day slotting mortarboards onto chattering over-emotional ex-students' heads. Have him wedge the size M hat on, feel it slip a little on your hair, super-shiny after being trimmed, washed and given a toner treatment by a trained genius friend the night before. He asks, 'nervous?' You reply 'of course not!' giggling with a tear in one eye, giving you away. 'But... Is it normal to be nervous?'

9:34am, standing outside the cathedral in the optimistic drizzle, catching up and taking photos with families and friends, fellow graduands. Guests lining up across the way eager for the good seats, while graduands wait to be led in to the alphabet seating. 9:40am, we're the first ones in. I'm possibly the third in, pattering up the uneven hallowed stone slabs, pretending to know where I'm going. 

9:43am, I find my seat, it's the one in the J-L row, with the gold-edged book that holds all ceremony info face-down on it, my name stuck on the back. My full name, first middle and last. It didn't occur to me that I'd be known as all three names today – my first and last are quite enough, they're both words you can use in a sentence, and I'm a-okay with that. My middle name is a baby girl's name, that happened to be the middle name of both my great-grandmas. I was cringing at the reveal of my secret second name, when I realised that one of my beautiful uni besties had the very same one. I was also feeling a little insecure and lonesome in my back row seat sandwiched between two classmates who had yet to arrive, then once again said bestie saved me when she sat down directly in front of me. My immense relief and joy at this prompts the first of many flashbacks that will be happening today – cornering the intimidatingly awesome self-proclaimed Bexhill girl in the stairwell after the latest uninspiring poetry seminar, exclaiming in her face that I'm from just down the road, excitedly hugging and babbling about our home towns, families and mutual friends as we walk back to halls, and thinking to myself 'thank goodness I didn't freak her out. I'm totally friend-crushing.'

Bexhill-born Creative Writer extraordinaire, the irrefutable Miss Holman-Hobbs, Cathedral selfie'ing with me.

10:15am, and they're all here. The familiar faces, ones I'd see every other day in obnoxious clean-cut auditoriums or cramped old-school classrooms; bleary and bloodshot on Thursday mornings or alert and excitable after a boring restful weekend, panicked and fearful in the week before D-Day then relieved yet buzzed by the middle of March. Polite hellos and enthused hugs happen again and again, parents snap and pap us as we pose where we sit.
10:36am, it all kicks off. Our ceremony is the first of many; a week packed full of graduands who become graduates and students who become masters, kids whose families watch their hard work pay off.

The ceremony was pleasant enough. Chancellor and Vice chatted and clucked onstage, we the crowd laughed and clapped in all the right places, and uni suddenly seemed more upscale and serious. As the rows began moving in front of me, the robed students standing up and being escorted to the steps to shake the hands and take the walk, my lips wobbled and vision blurred multiple times – I'd have to clamp down and remind myself of my make up. Don't cry until after, if you have to. 10:54am, I see the pompous interjecting lecture commentator in the row in front of me reading a thick fantasy novel. Even at the end, he can still annoy me.
11:05am, the Creative Writers are being called up. It's not until one of the first Bs is called, a certain Miss Brookman, the one with the epic full name that's almost as formidable as her writing talent, that people are brave enough to cheer. Before long every writer gets a whoop and several yells, at the very least a hard clap and a lukewarm outcry.
11:14am, I get a cheer. The surprise makes me turn and look into the crowd as I head up the wooden steps after shaking the first hand.
I would have looked anyway, to be fair. I've been watching countless Creative Writers and American studiers walk up onto the stage to end their student career and get the recognition and applause they deserve, and all I've seen are the backs of their heads or their profiles hidden beneath hair, eyes staring straight ahead as they step back down. Boring! My lecture buddy of three years, the one who happens to be a supremely talented writer and director as well as a red-hot harlot on social media, turns as he mounts the wood and treats us to a little chin tilt and playful eyebrow wiggle before conforming to the boring as he approaches the Chancellor. Now, he had the right idea. This is your moment, it's been a long time coming and yet happened all too quickly, and it's a moment that may never be replicated, even slightly. We're in the effing cathedral, the centre of the city's universe; it's terrifyingly grand and fits the occasion perfectly. When is the next time we'll be onstage here, looking out over a gorgeous loving crowd? You have to appreciate that view. So I take my time looking out, feeling the smile burning into my cheeks, slightly embarrassed that my full name was just called out and echoed through speakers for all to hear – I'm pretty glad that at this point I didn't know that the many cameras on the stage were feeding into monitors on pillars further back in the cathedral for the guests to watch us close-up as we exchange a few words with the important lady and focus all our energy on not tripping over at any point... I'm careful to keep my handshake firm and friendly, I laugh a little too hard when the Chancellor says 'Got family in, then?'
'Yes, almost a whole row of them! I was lucky enough to get a few more guest tickets...' I'm aware that the graduand after me is waiting and the applause for me is fading.
'Well, there's a lot of love in that cheer!' I thank her and feel my bottom lip jut out and wobble violently. I was so close to making a joke when she asked if I had family in; I'd respond with something along the lines of 'no, just nobody believed I'd ever get a degree!' Something self-deprecating always goes down a treat. I chickened out. I make sure to quickly lightly tap the left side of my head as I walk away from her, say thank you to my brain, because for all its faults, it's done well here. I then get an impulse and turn back to the audience, execute the perfect Rory Gilmore tribute with a deliriously lewd sticking-out of the tongue, then finally step down and am greeted by a suited fella holding my certificate. He hands it to me, says 'congratulations', probably one of many millions he'll say this week, and I respond with 'Thank you, can I cry now?' He smiles sympathetically and utterly unsurprised he replies: 'yes, of course you can cry now.'
That's all the permission I need. I nod another thank you and as I stand at the side waiting to be guided back to my seat, I let my face fall in on itself and take a moment to ugly-cry. It's an instinctive childish outburst, the kind you get when you fall over, graze your knees and don't know how to laugh it off yet.

11:30am (or thereabouts) was my favourite part of the ceremony, easily. Our Chancellor and Vice are singing the praises of the uni, congratulating themselves and members of staff, then us. 'Please do join us in congratulating our graduates' is followed by a shit-ton of applause. I feel we've been celebrated enough to last us a lifetime at this point. Then, brilliantly, we graduates are told that our families and friends have supported us throughout our studies and surely they deserve a thank you, too – so we all stand, turn towards our honoured guests and give them their due, a ludicrously loud bout of cheering and clapping, several rounds of applause somehow condensed into just a matter of minutes.
I do think for a moment how wonderful those around me have been through everything. I called my mum when Drama group work got me down, when one person belligerently threw in a whole toolbox of spanners and a whole piece threatened to flush itself down the drain. My dad bought me coffee and listened to me rant and rave about my ECP and how I was struggling with the characters' objectives in my creative piece just as much as the technical wording and research I had to include in my rationale essay. Little sis baked cupcakes and always understood when my beloved dedicated team or loyal live-in friends became everything but, and was a hotline for advice that was given in the form of Taylor Swift lyrics. My grandparents wanted confirmation constantly that my workload wasn't too unbearable, and that my part-time jobs in the outside world didn't endanger my grades or my mental health. When I'd get home for a weekend and message home girls asking if they fancied a drink and a dance or just a long drive round and round, they'd oblige and make sense of things I'd been stressed over for weeks, in seconds. My degree is just as much theirs as it is mine. They just never turned in coursework, pulled all-nighters in the library or acted out giving birth onstage.

11:48am, I'm willing myself to soak in the moment as we graduates – now with the 'ate' instead of the 'and' – are parading out of the cathedral, out of the big red front doors that apparently are only ever opened for these ceremonies; we're walking past countless proud parents, dear friends and there's even a very well-behaved dog on the end of one aisle. The second the doors were opened, we heard a mad thunderous din outside and turned to one another groaning 'oh no, is that rain?! I thought it would have cleared up by now!' Then we realised it was, in fact, outside applause. Applause from the crowd gathered outside, waiting to see us all.
Eyes fixed on the sky as we get closer to the doors, I reach into my dress pocket and without looking at the screen I type a panicked 'I'm out!!!!!' text to my best girl to ensure she gets down to the grounds in time to see us all in our finery. She has instructed me to text so she can come down, but really I'm being selfish, I want her here ASAP because she's my fave and she's just gotta be here – there are too many recent tricky times I wouldn't have got through without her by my side.



From noon onwards we were milling around outside the cathedral, in a sea of smart clothes and dark robes, punctuated by hats flying here and there. I threw my hat, of course, for that eagerly anticipated photo op, and as I'd been warned that mortarboards can get confused and muddled when thrown, I stared at mine as it flew and made sure I picked the right one back up. It wasn't too difficult – my mortarboard flew a little out of reach and smacked someone as it came back down to earth. I kept throwing to a minimum after that, focusing instead on grabbing everyone I knew while I could, posing for photos together, squealing with happiness and hugging madly. I also delighted in meeting everyone's guests.
It's so interesting and all too rare meeting your uni friends' families – I suppose going to school with someone, you'd see their parents and siblings when you had play dates and dinner round their house in the evenings, and you'd see college friends' rellies when you walked home with them or when they got off the train at their stop. I find parents fascinating. I meet a mum and a dad and I can see where their child, my friend, came from. Not literally, of course, that's just too gross and personal. I mean I see the features in the face they share and the mannerisms they've adopted – also occasionally, if they're like me, they will have learned to say certain things a certain way due to a parent with an accent. It's not just that, though. I met a fantastic friend's mother and thought 'she's so sweet, it obviously transferred to her daughter,' then met the father and it all clicked into place: 'and THIS is where the joyful, slightly mad enthusiasm and infectious smile came from!'


I cried periodically throughout the day. Before the ceremony, during, right after when hugging friends outside in the sun, when visiting the barista at his workplace, while lunching with the family, as I waved goodbye to the parents, grandparents and sis, when I met up with a good friend for dinner, even as I walked back to my digs for the week with the barista. For the most part, they were happy tears.
I'm not sure what brought on the tearful outburst right after my name was called in the ceremony, I mean there are only several thousand possible causes; I've been bashed about a fair bit by the boys, I've been dealt a few shit hands as friends turned sour, there's been health scares and true nightmares galore, there was always embarrassment brewed within the booze, and nowadays the excitement is gone and I'm stuck where I am, doing nothing of note and waiting for the future to happen. It's been tough at times over these three years, but it's far far tougher leaving them behind. I said something uncharacteristically profound to my boyfriend as I waited for my train back to reality at the end of Grad Week – 'It's harder to leave than be left.'

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