"It doesn't matter how rich or successful a man is. If he doesn't have an education, he's got nothing." - The greatest Thornton of them all, Thornton Melon
Before I go another step, I'll start off with a couple of ground rules. First, I have a strict policy when it comes to people bragging about their kids' accomplishments. Let's call it my Airport Standard. In the same way that I'll give someone a ride to the airport provided I know they'd give me one if I needed it, I'll happily share in a proud parent's triumphs so long as I know it's reciprocal. And I'm blessed with plenty of friends who qualify. And I'm genuinely happy for them when their kids do something bragworthy.
Second, and I can't stress this enough, graduating college is not all that big an accomplishment in 2023. Let's be honest about that. Most high school graduates in America go on to get some degree or other now. The days of politicians pandering for votes by claiming they're the first in their family of postal workers or coal miners to graduate college stopped sounding plausible about three generations ago. And universities today aren't exactly Oxford in the 1920s, with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien sitting by the fireplace discussing Norse myths. A professor on Bill Maher's show said recently that there are way more administrators in colleges now than professors. And their mission is to treat students like customers. They're there to be made happy, like passengers on a cruise. Not necessarily educated, like actual scholars. Though learning things is something you can still accomplish while you're there, the primary goal is getting a degree for all that money your parents put into the place. Which is not that hard anymore. Like we used to say about getting a job with the state, a perfect score on the test is 98.6.
Despite what the CEO of Melon's Tall & Fat stores said, some of the smartest and most successful people I've ever met never saw the inside of a college classroom. That's a point I took every opportunity to drill into both my son's young, developing brains. I had a pile of gravel delivered to our house once and had them watch the guy navigate a massive industrial dump truck down the 90-degree angle of our driveway (without bending a blade of grass on my pristine lawn) and reminded them that these are the people who make the world work. That when there's a major blizzard and the state tells non-essential personnel to stay home and off the roads, they might as well mention me by name. But without guys like him, everything shuts down. He makes a very good living, and his job will never be outsourced to Sri Lanka. And nothing has ever dissuaded me from that idea. After all, Melon might have delivered that line to his son Jason, but he also said he used to dream about going to college when he'd fall asleep in high school.
But going to college was right for my younger son. Always. His older brother chose the military before deciding a degree was preferable to being stationed at a recruiting office in some jerkwater town for the next four years, talking 16-year-olds like himself into joining. For No. 2 Son, campus life was a perfect fit. Which is to say, campus life at a Catholic university full of people focused on making their way in this life, but very much devoted to establishing their place in the next.
I got the sense he'd found exactly the right place as soon as we made our first visit. Whatever else you might think about the Church in particular or devout followers of the faith in general, the one thing that struck me in all the times the Irish Rose and I have been on campus, there was never any doubt the people we dealt with are happy. The student body, the opposite of the stereotype of maladjusted, 2-ply soft college kids who need a trigger warning before hearing the term "trigger warning." And that goes for the faculty as well,clergy as well as lay people, who to a person seem to genuinely love what they do. While I don't have the data to back it up, I get the impression the priests, friars and nuns I've encountered have lower rates of depression and self-harm than America's population of TikTok influencers. Just one man's hypothesis.
So going back to the school one last time was something we'd been looking forward to since … well I guess since before he was born. There are certain universal truths to becoming a parent. One, that having a child impacts every part of your life long before they're born. In the same way astronomers can detect a celestial object they can't see, just from the gravitational pull it has on things around it, there's evidence of your baby all around you while they're still in the womb. The way an expectant mom carries herself; in a good mood, even when she's exhausted. The look in a 5-year-olds' eyes when you tell him he's going to be a big brother and he says, "I feel kinda different." The way a father acts when he realizes he's going to lose golf days scraping the race car wallpaper border off the small bedroom and replacing it with a cute animals one. And he starts doing the math of how soon he'll have to start going to bed sober in case she goes into labor early.
But no matter who you are or what your family circumstances, every expectant father pictures certain days in his child's future. And without a doubt, one of them is Graduation Day. Even before you know the gender of the baby, there's part of you that can visualize with total clarity the cap, the gown, the diploma, and Older You proudly looking on like the beloved gray-haired dad in an investmen commercial. And when that day finally arrives, it hits you. Hard. It comes leaping off the top heartstrings with a flying elbow of feelings, right into your emotional solar plexus.
Yet here's another universal truth every parent can relate to. Graduation ceremonies are awful. Without exception, there's nothing remotely interesting about them. They've been doing these things in some form for hundreds of years, and no one has ever figured out a way to improve on them. They're all just names of people you've never heard of being read one at a time, they walk to the stage, someone hands them a prize, and a crowd of strangers applauds. Graduations are essentially the middle 90 minutes of the Academy Awards. And the best one ever witnessed isn't one iota better than the worst.
And don't put your hopes in the Commencement Address. There's never been one delivered that wasn't some variation on telling the graduates to take their journey into a hopeful future down the path of discover with the optimistic outlook of a voyage into the idealism of tomorrowness. The only one anyone can remember was Michael Keaton a few years ago. And even his is reduced to his last three words, "I am Batman." Which only works for him and like four other living actors. So your odds of having a good one are infinitesimal.
Maybe I'm just salty because our family name begins with "T", but the way they read the names alphabetically is undemocratic. The A's through D's get huge rounds of applause. By the F's, everyone starts saving their strength; clapping maybe every third name. By the L's, you're picking your spots, every 10th name or when someone has a list of awards. When R rolls around, I'm looking through the program for the funniest names, the toughest names for the speaker to pronounce, the names that sound most like a Hunger Games character. By the P's, I start scanning the crowd for celebrity look-a-likes. (That kid about to go up looks like Nate from Ted Lasso," etc.) Around S, I start obsessing over the outfits on the faculty. The robes with more racing stripes and tricked out detailing than the classic muscle cars that middle aged suburban dads gather around in the far corner of parking lots on weekend afternoons. The wild assortment of hats. The giant beret that could've come out of the French Painter costume at Spirit Halloween. One that is straight from the guy working the Axe Throwing booth at King Richard's Faire. Some from the Ministry of Magic. Others from some fictional kingdom the Marx Brothers are put in charge of. By the time we get to my part of the alphabet, I'm some combination of bored and exhausted. I'm boredausted.
That is, until my son's name is called. Then in an instant, I'm that Younger Me who was just told by his wife she's expecting. The one imagining this Older Me living this very moment I dreamed about then. Until now, I've mainly been talking about what every parent of every grad goes through. What follows is more personal. The experiences of this father, watching this son earn his college degree.
A while back, I wrote about living past the age my father did. It occurred to me then that, despite what the bumper stickers tell us, life doesn't go by one day at a time. Nor do you wake up one day and find yourself older than you used to be, like on some round number birthday. Life comes at you in milestones. One day guys your age are playing in the Major Leagues. The next, guys your age are getting elected to Cooperstown. Then one day you're outliving your dad, and so on.
But it's not always that linear. I don't know if this is quite what Einstein was getting at, but it's relative too. There are moments when you're with your suddenly adult children and spacetime bends back on itself like a tortilla shell, and you're through the wormhole connecting you to some moment from the past. The happy tear I shed as my boy's name is called picks up from the ones I started when he was handed to me in the birthing unit at South Shore Hospital. Finding him in the crush of families outside the fieldhouse is like first seeing the wriggling ball of kinetic energy I'd only felt as a kick, his mother's hand on the back of mine, her ring touching mine. Hugging each other, he's back on my lap handing me that book about the father and son tugboats again. Watching him talk to his professors, and I'm seeing the same looks I saw on his coaches' faces that time the head coach put him in at nose tackle and he dropped the running back three yards in the backfield because he was too small to block. Laughing with his friends in the brewpub afterwards, it's a hundred different play dates, sleepovers, scout meetings and parties at the neighbors', that all blend together over the years. Like the relationship between a father and his son.
When he got to his first dorm, and again when he moved into the awful, substandard off-campus housing every college kid has to experience once in his life, his mom did everything she could to make it as pleasant as possible. She bought him organizers, racks, hangers, everything he'd need. Which is every mother's instinct. And it runs deep in the devoted Irish Rose. At those moments, I took my inspiration from history. From Edward III, "The Perfect King" of England, during the Battle of Crecy, during the 100 Years War. Edward's son The Black Prince was commanding a company in the thick of the battle when his standard fell. Told the Prince needed reinforcements, the King famously said, "Let the boy earn his spurs." He did. He rallied his troops and was named Prince of Wales. And the way I look at it, any man whose parenting skills leads to his son getting an NHL Conference named after him, is someone I can take my cues from.
Afterwards, Edward said to the Prince, "Fair son. God save you. You are my good son and you have acquitted yourself nobly today. You are worthy to keep a realm." I wish I'd said the same after the ceremony, so I'm saying it now. It seems as good a time as any. Because I've known it to be true for 22 years and counting.
Happy graduation to the Class of 2023. You've made your parents proud.