In my family growing up, I went to one graduation: my own high school send-off.
My sister did not have a graduation from high school or college, and I do not remember going to my brother’s high school version and he did not have one in college.
Perhaps that lack of experience allowed me to feel it was fine to not attend my college graduation. But there were other factors.
My parents put me in private day schools my entire life. Although I was the only one after my older sister dropped out of high school, and there was, apparently, money to do it, I always knew it was not a happy thing for my father to pony up the $6K a year it took to go to Cornell in the 1970’s, even though it was his, and my mother’s venerated alma mater.
One visit in 5 years of my attendance, despite bi-monthly criss-crossing New York State in the endless transits between homes in Buffalo and Westchester seemed natural, given the state of our family’s survival.
After my freshman year I began to do odd jobs to keep my CornellCard bills lower: I knew this was important as, without warning, my parents had simply cancelled the card when the balance exceeded their expectations: an interesting moment not buying breakfast I had slopped onto my tray one weekend morning.
So I became a Resident Adviser at Cornell’s Arts Residential College in the dorm system that job included free room, lunch and dinner 5 days a week, and since we did a great deal of arts programming amid the AAA Ball psychotherapy, some cash whenever we went above 20 hours a week on the job. And that happened every week.
I also delivered the Cornell Daily Sun, when it was Daily, and did posters for University Unions activities – where I ultimately became the highest paid level of student employee in my 5th year – $7 an hour in 1977.
But I knew that once all the cash from all my birthdays and Christmases that I had handed over for deposit and all the coins and bills I received over the first 18 years in my life and had put into my cardboard box bank with my black and white Polaroid on it had been liquidated into Cornell’s coffers, my father’s patience with my cost was going fast.
So I asked for my parents to pay for a summer design course ($600) to save $3,000 for an entire last semester, as I had accelerated through the first 4 years to only need that one additional course to graduate a semester early. They saw the value in that.
Although I had paid rent and food and most expenses for most of those 4 years, I hoped my parents could pick up the last semester’s tuition balance, as they had the previous 4 years.
They would not: and somehow this did not surprise me. I then researched a loan to pay the $2,300 I would end up owing – which was fine, but the loan needed a co-signer.
I called and asked my obviously past-5pm, mid scotch-imbibing Dad if he would cosign, he slurred, quietly, “No”. Given that I had watched the check-out clerk cut my Cornell Card in half the year before, I should not have been surprised, but I was. He said “No.” to letting me pay for my degree, with him simply backing me up.
“WHY?” I uncharacteristically yelled into the phone. “Because you are a bad risk.” He emphatically slurred.
I immediately got my diploma in January before all the last semester bills came in (the real joy of pre-cyber bill collation) and Cornell then, after I had my degree, asked me, because I was over 21, politely for the money.
I went to my faculty mentor, who I had taken 2 courses with and he said “Sure.” (In a Polish accent.) He signed and I walked the check over to the Bursers office and owed Tompkins County Community Bank the $2,300.
I now had to find the money to pay off that balance and the $7 an hour gig as “Media Services Coordinator For University Unions At Cornell”, with its cool office in the Student Union was done, as I was no longer a student.
So: thru architecture school homies I went Scallop Fishing in Cape May, New Jersey: 10 hours on/2 hours off, 24 hours a day, for 10 days. A couple of death defying tours paid off the bill in short order.
But that meant that on my graduation day, I looked up from the pile of Dinner Plate Scallops and detritus amid my rubber boots 21 miles out to sea on a bright May morning in 1978, and knew my class was graduating at that very moment.
My parents were in Dobbs Ferry, New York, alone, as customary, and I shrugged my shoulders and kept sorting out the dinner plates on the rolling deck to put in my basket to take back to the shucking house in the stern of the boat.
No regrets, no anger, I had only been to one of those celebrations, and it was nice, but $1,000 every 10 days in 1978 paid off Cornell in short order.
In these last 4 years we have been to 4 college graduations of our children, counting grad schools. I see parents that have lived for these moments. Although my eggs were not all in those baskets, I get it.
But I doubt I will ever get my parents.