I don't remember the name of the woman whose hand I shook, or even what she looked like. I do, however, remember the attendant--a guy approximately my age--who greeted me just before I ascended the steps to the stage.
"Congratulations," he whispered, reaching for the white tassel that dangled near my right eye. "I'm going to move this so it is out of your way." As I passed him, I heard him whisper similar words to the girl behind me.
I nearly started laughing.
A designated tassel mover?
I think that was when I realized that Purdue graduations are several steps beyond what any high school in southwest Iowa could host.
After the mandatory tassel readjustment, I was asked to quietly speak my name into a recorder. My name was checked off on a list and, when I finally reached the stage and was handed my diploma, I was greeted by a handshake and a quiet 'Congratulations,' which was quickly followed by an even quieter, "Are you Dawn?"
I returned to my seat quickly, as thousands of undergrads were being shuffled from dueling directions. Shake hands. Smile. Walk. Pray the phone and ChapStick don't fall out of my bra. Walk. Don't trip. Stroll up the aisle. Pass usher. Stand. Open diploma case.
It was in there.
A stiff piece of paper worth $80,000 just because it's stamped with the Purdue seal.
I stared. The inside of the case was lined with golden shininess. I expected the diploma to be shiny, too. More gold to represent the Gold and Black. Flashier. Shinier. Perhaps encrusted with diamonds.
"I expected it to be ... more!" I exclaimed to the girl to my left. "Fancier or something."
"Yeah, no kidding!" she agreed. "It isn't very fancy." She resumed texting. I resumed staring.
For the remainder of the ceremony, I kept opening and closing the case, not ready to believe that that piece of oak tag commemorated two years' worth of education, finances, employment, and "good times, good times..."
I was right.
I don't remember shaking anyone's hand. But I do remember looking at my diploma. I do remember listening to one speech--a student's. As I listened to her joke about Breakfast Club, Den Pops and the piano bar, I thought about my friends. About work. About life in the residence halls. About sledding at Slayter Hill. About fountain runs. About walk-in/walk-out galleries and broken umbrellas and color printing and freezing computer labs. About Randy Newman playing at Harry's and some dolt asking, "Hey, isn't this the guy from 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?'"
Stupid people have no reason to live.
I never would have laughed with my friends, then, if I hadn't chosen to continue my education at Purdue. In fact, until I joined their after-work specials last fall, they were strangers to me.
Everyone was a stranger. When I first came to the university, I shared classes with faceless individuals, people whose names I never learned. It was common, then, not knowing anyone. Leaving home for the first time was frightening, but now it was heartbreaking to know that I would not be coming back in August ...
I was already jealous of those who would unsteadily load their belongings onto a cart with squeaky, uneven wheels. I was jealous of those who would buy Insomnia Cookies. Jealous of those who would yell "HEEEEEEEEEeeeeeey!" to familiar faces and walk across campus, across town, with them.
The student speaker pushed forward. "When first arriving at school ... each person had a name tag crookedly stuck to their shirts, and we went around and told small facts about ourselves. These new strangers were different ages and from different countries, but we were here together to pursue a Purdue education. We stand here today not only next to colleagues, but next to friends. It has been our friends who made the challenging days bearable and the good days even more memorable ... now that our classmates know all our secrets, the fact that we began as strangers seems almost humorous."
Rush of blood. Heart beating. Not ready to leave.
I glanced down the row, to my left, and saw one of my coworkers. She was crying.
I can't say that I loved everything about Purdue. I can't say that I made the most of my experience. I can't say that I attended a basketball game or even learned the fight song.
But I can say this: The trustees have agreed that my time at Purdue is finished. They printed, stamped and handed me a