As I write this, I am sitting on a futon in Rotherhithe. Just outside my window, the sun is up, and powerful breezes are gusting through the yard. A bird sings a cacophonous tune. To my left, my suitcase, prone on the floor, awaits being refilled with what I’ve taken out of it before I head off to Paris on the Eurostar. Opposite is a green plastic bag which contains a larger garment bag which holds my doctoral robes.
It’s been twenty four hours since I awoke to graduation day, and all of it seems a bit like a dream: everything from the loping down the stair in the early morning light, to making the coffee, to checking the news. Then there was finishing packing, picking up my freshly repaired shoes and taking a shower. This was followed by putting on a dress shirt, my cufflinks, my dark grey suit. I wore a red tie which had both British and American flags as a pattern: I thought it was a suitable reflection of my hybrid origins. Once everything was packed, I proceeded down to the train station, and then to my university.
I met up with my family. I drank a Diet Coke. We then went to the campus and I proceeded to pick up my robes: it was at that moment that it really hit me. The maroon and sky blue robes were in a plain cardboard box, and came with a black hat tied with a maroon silk cord which is unflatteringly called a bonnet. A young fellow with a Superman symbol belt buckle helped me put them on. There was a matter of some debate: there’s the robe, and a loop which goes over the shoulders. I was under the impression that the loop was part of the ritual: the officer at the ceremony called the Esquire Bedell, I thought, was supposed to put that on me as I knelt in front of the presiding official. The young man had no idea. The people at the ticket tent said I was going to get a second loop. Such small matters kept me perplexed and occupied up until I got to the theatre in which the ceremony was held.
My family and I went our separate ways. Two nice young ladies explained to me at the graduate entrance that I did indeed have to take off the loop. Furthermore, I should hold the loop in a rather uncomfortable position so that the Esquire Bedell could pick it up easily. Oh and by the way, the bonnet needed to be kept tucked under my left arm until I left the ceremony. So I sat, loop held in place, bonnet tucked under my arm, and felt how heavy the robes were: made of satin and wool, they added gravity to the proceedings.
As I waited, I thought of all the things which had led to that moment. I thought of the long weekends spent locked in writing; the studying and research, the arguing with myself. I thought of my Norwegian grandfather, the colourful storyteller, who probably gave me the traits that led to this moment. I had found out the previous day that I was the first PhD in Creative Writing to graduate from my university. My colleagues were kind enough to put up a press release announcing this and the forthcoming release of my novel; my grandfather would have been so proud. All of that hard work and determination had led to here. What would happen next? Where would I go? The funny thing about graduation missives is their repeated insistence that everyone in the cohort is leaving, as if we are compelled to instantly proceed out to the far corners of the earth. Oh, and by the way, the marketing materials also say, don’t forget to tell everyone how great the university is! I did not need reminding.
Is that the expectation now, I wondered, that I should go. Will the next phase of my life begin upon departure? What should I do? My life for the past 5 years had been focused on achieving first my master’s then my doctorate, so what next? Another novel, certainly. But like the bird outside my window now, do I insist on singing from the same tree, or do I flit to another one?
I cast a look at the audience: my father, mother, sister and her fiancee were there. They waved; I waved back. At that point, I looked a bit lonely, as I was the only doctor of philosophy in the room. Three others eventually came along, though they were seated in another area: this was partially due to the way the ceremony had been organised, and it was also due to the fact that my doctoral colleagues were archaeologists. Not only first, but in terms of English, I was alone.
The ceremony began; Handel was piped in, and the officials and academics filed up the stairs to their seats. The Dean of Humanities read out name after name of Bachelor’s Degree students. I noticed that the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, was in the crowd. The names almost became a litany: I felt sorry for the presiding official, in this case, the pro-Vice Chancellor, as she had to shake the hands and greet every last one of us.
Then it finally came to me. I got on stage, smiled at the people I knew among the dignitaries, knelt on a cushioned stool and lowered my head, clasping my hands together. The loop was placed over my head and around my shoulders. The pro-Vice Chancellor took my hands in hers and urged me to stand. We chatted for less than a minute in a hushed whisper: she congratulated me on completing such an ardous course of study, I pointed out that I worked full time as well, and she said “My goodness”. One more congratulations, then off.
I stepped into the hall outside the theatre so I could go to my original place via the back way, as per the organiser’s instructions. I believe my feelings were best summarised by what I said to the young lady guiding wayward graduates like myself: “Help?” She pointed the way. I went back to my seat.
After a few words from the pro-vice chancellor and more Handel, I went outside into the breeze and sunshine. I put on the hat; it was one of the few days in which it won’t be out of place. Many excited graduates surrounded me: they were clinging to each other or to their families and friends. I smiled. “I’ve made it,” I thought. It was all over. The Head of Education for English shook my hand on his way past me. After a while, my family emerged from the depths of the theatre; I met with several dear friends and colleagues en route to getting photos sorted. I got an unexpected card which touched me. Then my family and I went to dinner, at which point the robes were put into the garment bag in which they now reside.
The rest of the day sustained a dreamlike quality: I went up to London with my sister and her fiancee. The route we took was almost a personal history tour. We went through Richmond, where I did my BA. We went through neighbourhoods I knew and loved, past places where I used to work: London seemed full to bursting with life, with people sitting in outdoor cafes in Knightsbridge, and the lights twinkling throughout. My sister’s fiancee said he’d have problems if he’d ever have to leave London, and from the vantage point of driving past Buckingham Palace, I could see why. There is a grandeur in some parts which can be quite addictive. Eventually we arrived at Rotherhithe, and now I’m here on this futon, after a restful night’s sleep and thinking of the promise of Paris ahead of me. Graduation stupefies, leaves one in a daze for a time afterwards: I know that life has irrevocably changed. It is so odd to have that event condensed into a single day; for the moment, there is no onus on me to figure out what follows. I know that I have a book launch to do; but beyond that, there are no more questions to be answered insofar as my programme of study is concerned. The daze will pass, how this achievement is to be integrated into my life will become clear over time. For now though, at this moment, there is quiet except for the birds and the breeze.