Earning My MA & Getting Hooded: CSUS Commencement at Arco Arena, 22 May 2009

We arrive at Arco Arena around 11:15–just a little bit early before the graduates are supposed to gather. It’s bright out–but the weather forecast says it should be a comfortable 85 degrees tops. I’m already starting to sweat under these black polyester poly-something robes that my mom was kind enough to iron for me that very morning.

After some pictures with the family in the parking lot, I tuck four folded plastic beach balls underneath my cap. I can’t wear it, because it’s so full. My mom catches a glimpse of the bright orange and asks me what I have.

“Nothing.”
“Come on, Jen,” she says. “You aren’t going to throw something are you?”
I look at my brother and then down to straighten my robes. “What do you think I am Mom,” I say, “an undergrad?”
“I hope not,” she says, shaking her head. “You’re getting your Masters, so you should be serious.”
“Yes, Mom.”

I’ve convinced myself that the art of white lies is part and parcel to a fiction writer’s persona. I don’t feel guilty at all.

Graduates are supposed to gather at the service entrance, which is just under the South Entrance of Arco Arena, so I separate from my family. Security doesn’t search me, so the four beach balls I have tucked underneath my cap are safe.

Sloping cement ceilings overhead mean the stadium seating is just above. It’s cool and dark inside; the sweat on my forehead begins to dry. I tug on my cap. It’s so annoying, slipping over my hair and tilting this way and that. Luckily I’ve brought some bobby pins, tucked in a small wallet, clipped to the front of my shirt and stuffed underneath my robes. I reach down, trying to juggle everything at once: my cap, my hood, a bottle of water, four folded beach balls, my open wallet and the bobby pins.

I feel like an idiot, and figure I have some time before friends start arriving, so I duck into the restroom. In a stall, I shove all four beach balls down the front of my robe. I’m seven months pregnant, but all the black conceals all the bumps and bulges–though with the beach balls, I look like I’m lactating. At the stink, I stand in front of the mirror, pinning my hair, and try hard not to drag my sleeves through puddles of water on the counter.

When I come back out, it’s much more crowded with the arrival of graduates. I have a hard time recognizing people’s faces when I can’t see the shape of their bodies underneath black robes. I recognize Bridget Mabunga by her blonde hair and figure that the tall person standing next to her smiling must be Robin Martin. A few squints and tentative steps forward confirm my thoughts. Casey Rene Miller is already there too, along with Joshua Neely. All the creative writers are gathered under a piece of paper on the wall that reads:

“MASTERS – English, Liberal Arts, Music – Place your hood over your left arm.”

I’ve already got my hood on, and with help from Casey, lift it off, careful not to knock my cap. For a few minutes, we’re all able to relax, take pictures and marvel at our greatness. Every once in awhile, a new person joins our group for a picture and then leaves: Gordon Warnock, Aschala Edwards.

Sheree Meyer, English Department Chair, comes by wearing fancy PhD robes. I want to run my hands over the velvety stripes on her sleeves, but restrain myself. I don’t know her very well after all. She instructs us on how to properly hang our hood over our arms to expedite the hooding process. All the grad candidates, me included, stand there turning our hoods inside and out, white, then yellow, then green, trying to do it just like her. Is that right?

We start moving. Robin Martin, Casey Rene Miller, me, followed by Bridget Mabunga. Everyone’s walking real fast, and I waddle forward, faster than I’ve moved in weeks. At last.

We emerge from a tunnel. Lights. People. Relatives. Friends. Bleachers of yelling people.

I feel like a star, like an NBA player ready to hit the court, and as I walk to my seat, I march accompanied to Pomp and Circumstance, the song so familiar a rite of passage that I recognize the moment as so special that it requires a soundtrack. Last dances with crushes. Car rides with friends. A funeral procession. A wedding ceremony. A first dance.

I’ll never forget this.

So fast and we’re being seated. We all look at each other–can it be? The English Masters candidates are seated in the front row, seats of importance. I think back to when I graduated with my Bachelors Degree from San Francisco State University in 2004 and to the pictures my mom took from the football field stands. Even with the camera zoom, I was just a purple dot amongst dots. But here at last, two years of additional higher education have earned me the right to stand out, up front, near enough to run up and touch CSUS President Alexander Gonzalez if I want to, or to lob one of the beach balls stuffed down my shirt at his head.

We English graduates stand there, spinning around looking for friends and family, almost speechless, except to let out deep breaths, faltering laughs and one word exclamations. I spot my family. They are seated directly to my left, in the perfect spot to see me get hooded. I wave. Everyone is smiling.

Casey looks like she’s going to cry. She attended CSUS during her undergraduate study, so her heart’s been there longer than mine. Bridget says she’s going to cry. She does later. Everyone does.

Happy that I am to sit in a seat of such prestige, having such a high profile seat with my front exposed leaves a hitch in my plans to inflate all these beach balls without detection. In the end, Casey and I decide that it’s smarter to pass the balls back and hope that fellow graduates will inflate them.

On each of our seats is the graduation program, a Sac State Alum sticker, and a little card and pencil to fill out with our description and names so they can forward us our pictures after the ceremony. I fill mine out. Black hair, glasses. I doubt they’ll get it right. (They don’t.)

And then the waiting. Speeches. Honorees. A PhD. Professor Emeritus.

Only one part truly moves me, and I don’t remember who said it. Something said to the masters candidates, about being a master of a subject, and officially becoming an academic scholar.

I am a master. I am a scholar.
I am.

Finally, the time has come. Our front row stands and we file in line. I take deep breaths. This is the moment. This is the moment. I try to smile when the hood goes over my head, but I feel stupid, unable to find a place between ecstatic and solemn. I hope I look proud.

When Robin goes up to the podium, I can’t cheer. I’m too busy smiling for a picture in front of the American flag that I won’t buy. I don’t even notice when Casey’s name gets called. I’m too busy wondering if the person will read my name correctly.

My turn. I step forward. A woman smiles, shakes my hand and takes the card. I yell my name loud in her ear. She looks at the card, repeats it aloud, nods and goes to the podium.

Jennifer Palmares Meadows.

Yes. That’s me with all the correct syllables.

I go forward and shake a man’s hand. He hands me a card, clearly not my diploma, which will be mailed out weeks from now, pending my final grades. Then, I swing my arms up over my head and yell, trying hard not to fly out of my shoes.

Afterward, I return to my seat, my heart still beating hard, whooping when I see an undergraduate walk: Aschala, Gordon, Lucy Nevins, Jason Conde. Damn there are a lot of undergrads. I try not to get depressed–my moment seems to have passed. I look to the stands and wave at my family, my niece with a tub of popcorn.

Everyone gets to their feet when Estelle Rees Arroyo approaches the front. She’s 92 years old and earning her bachelors degree in history. She shuffles forward, and the crowd of graduates goes wild, calling out, whooping. I tear up a little. Casey yells at me to turn around, and I start laughing–the beach balls have started flying, all four of them. One comes my way. I catch it and chuck it as far as I can. A woman in her PhD robes charges forward with a look of chagrin on her face. Someone whacks a ball out of her way before she can confiscate it.

That’s something else I will always remember, the faces of all my friends, fellow graduates, following the orange beach balls and the poor PhD chastising our lack of solemnity.

It’s over. We file out. Into the tunnel again, and I cry aloud, “What am I going to do with my life, now I’m out of school?”

Other graduates turn around to look at me like I’m pathetic, as if to say, “I’m freaking out too, but please act with a little bit of decorum.”

Decorum aside, what am I going to do with my life now I’m out of school?

Images from the top, names listed left to right:

  • Check out the hoods: Bridget Mabunga, Casey Rene Miller, Jen Palmares Meadows (photo credit Robin Martin)
  • Creative Writing is in the Hzouse: Bridget Mabunga, Casey Rene Miller, Robin Martin, Jen Palmares Meadows, Joshua Neely, Gordon Warnock
  • Smile: Collage includes all above and Aschala Edwards
  • Hold your robe like this: Sheree Meyer
  • Front stage
  • We’re here: Robin Martin, Casey Rene Miller
  • Hood us already: Graduates sitting
  • We did it: Robin Martin, Casey Rene Miller, Jen Palmares Meadows, Bridget Mabunga
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Comments
2 Responses to “Earning My MA & Getting Hooded: CSUS Commencement at Arco Arena, 22 May 2009”
  1. twosongbirdspress says:

    Thanks for the nice memories, Jen. Thanks too for warning me about that photo. 😉

  2. phuongie says:

    You're going to have plenty of diapers to change in about 2 months…

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  • © 2017 Jen Palmares Meadows
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