And there I was, in black cap and gown, sitting on stage at the beautiful Paramount Theater, downtown Oakland, surrounded by my new colleagues of Merritt College, looking out on twenty rows of blue-clad graduates and a theater full of families and supporters. A few rows up, my dean, Siri Brown, had just given a rousing keynote speech about overcoming all challenges to earn this moment. She worked the large crowd and, it being Oakland, they gave back, shouting down from the balcony, “Get it, Girl!” and up from the packed orchestra, “Tell it!” Near the end, she instructed them to “Love the haters!” and not let anyone’s low expectations stand in your way. They roared their approval.
Students, dressed in blue, were having their culminating moment under the spotlight, approaching the stage, handing a card to the two readers, waiting for their name to be read. From the back row, I watched their faces as the audio waves carrying their name soared out over the crowd. Some of them danced across the stage, some strutted, some quietly shuffled, but all of them, from 20 to 80 years old, of every background, held something in their eyes, their cheekbones, their straightened backs and lifted chins, that suggested a wonderful mix of relief and joy. Some held fists high. Some pointed at their families deep in the balcony. Some turned and waved to a faculty member who was calling out their name and cheering for them.
I knew almost no one in the entire theater, not the students (most of mine won’t graduate for another year or ten), not their families, not even most of my colleagues, but it didn’t matter. This was my new job, helping students reach this moment, as part of this community. The shouts and excitement of the students and their families was enough to put my feet firmly on the stage, my back against the seat. Afterwards, the faculty and staff all lined both sides of the gilded hallway of the Paramount, and the students and their families paraded down the middle. We clapped and cheered for them as they opened the many doors at the end of the hall and headed out into the world.