On Tuesday evening, I found myself in a pub with two people who had, in the past, received degrees from my undergraduate institution. We are different ages and in wildly divergent disciplines and not there at the same time, and our paths did not cross until we all landed up at the same church in Glasgow, but we had each, at some time in our lives, attended a graduation ceremony in Durham Cathedral. And all of us remembered clearly that at those graduation ceremonies, the only thing we had been required to do was to walk onto a stage, shake the Chancellor’s hand, and walk off the stage. Our hoods had been donned before the ceremony. Our degree parchments were sent later, by post. I had, briefly, panicked and thought that I was meant to curtsey to Bill Bryson, but this turned out to be a nightmare reserved for those whose degrees were affiliated to the Royal Academy of Dance.
My first inkling that my Glasgow graduation might be a little different came last year, when I was informed that a song would be somehow involved. My second inkling came on Tuesday afternoon, when someone from the Registry hoisted himself to the top of a table, performed feats of origami with the hood borrowed from the neck of a dentistry graduand, and announced that this was how we were to carry ours, in our left hand, as our name was called and we ascended to the stage. He went on to say that I would pass the hood across to someone at the top of the ramp, turn to face the Principal, let him bash me on the head with his cap while the person who now has the hood throws it around my neck, shake his hand, walk to someone at the top of the next ramp, take my degree parchment, shake his hand, and walk back to my seat. I had begun the day by tripping over my own two feet, throwing a full mug of coffee all over the spare bedroom, landing on the floor, and bringing down two cardboard boxes on top of myself and an indignant kitten. By the time the man from the Registry got to his first comma, the whole enterprise had begun to sound like a feat of memory and coordination worse than Corpus Christi.
And on Corpus Christi, my feats of memory and coordination are performed backwards.
“You didn’t tell me there would be choreography!” I squeaked later, rather unfairly, at a friend who was awarded her medical degree in 1999.
It is perhaps not entirely surprising that I only got as far as shaking the Principal’s hand before I forgot what to do next. My instinct, when I forget what to do next, is to reverence and then make something up, but this wasn’t that kind of occasion (we invoked the Trinity, mind, twice and in Latin, so you can see how there might be some confusion), and, besides, you can’t reverence Anton Muscatelli.
I have very little recollection of how I got off the stage, except that the traffic at the top of the first ramp failed to grind to a complete halt and so I assume that I must have done. I remember that at some point I was intercepted by the man with the parchments, who, from the look on his face, realised that I’d forgotten about that part and would have marched right past him without actually receiving my degree.
Yet, we all somehow got through it. We all made it back into our seats, we all made the Declaration (the only part of the ceremony performed fully in English, someone in 1868 presumably having had the sense to realise that people committing themselves to the profession that they have just joined ought perhaps to understand what it is that they’re saying), we were all blessed, we all processed out of the Hall and through the cloisters, and, improbably quickly, I tracked down my family in the disorganised chaos. My family, incidentally, who had by this time spent several minutes trying to phone me on my mobile phone, which they had put into their bag for me for safekeeping. And, for at least a short period, so I am assured, I was generally considered to be the best daughter/granddaughter/niece/cousin in the entire history of time and space.
They had all been waiting for this for almost as long as I have.
And although I make fun and although I do occasionally wonder why my life tries to resemble a slapstick comedy and although the Scottish weather provided us with a torrential downpour as if determined to end things just exactly as we had begun them, I had a wonderful day. I laughed a lot and cried a lot and beamed at the stranger who congratulated me as I ran down University Avenue in my gown. I was happy to be with the family who trekked up from Newcastle for this and with the friends from all the different bits of my world who came out to celebrate afterwards. It was a fitting end to five fabulous years and I cannot wait to see what’s waiting in the next five.