“When you turn that tassel, you’re moving on, not just from college, but also from all of the emotions that come with it,” she pronounced with gentle sagacity. Her eyes seemed locked on mine as she spoke as if this was a lesson meant for me… and me alone.
She knew. She knew my reservations about attending my college graduation ceremony. She knew that I had been struggling through college. She knew just how fervently I longed to move on.
I wonder if she knew at that moment, as she lectured on the cultural significance of rites of passage, that she had the power to change my perspective? I wonder if she knew that she would forever alter the course of my graduation day? I wonder if she knew how serendipitous this moment was, how, at the most fortuitous time, she spoke the words I secretly longed to hear?
A few months prior to my college graduation, I began to seriously contemplate not walking in my graduation ceremony. My increasingly cemented decision to forgo walking in my college graduation was borne out of feelings of insecurity and shame. My perfection-addled mind had wrongly convinced me that graduating with anything less than highest honors was an abhorrent dishonor, a dishonor so undeniably shameful that it could never merit walking across the graduation stage. If the long-awaited graduation booklets were to suggest that I would be graduating with “great honors,” as opposed to the coveted “highest honors,” I would not be attending my graduation ceremony.
I understood that my resistant attitude towards my impending graduation was extremely disrespectful, not only to the time-honored cultural institution of graduation ceremonies but also to the students who had worked diligently to graduate with “great honors,” “honors,” or no honors at all. But, my refusal to walk at my graduation ceremony stemmed from a far deeper insecurity: the pervasive fear that my barely-perceptible cerebral palsy would become glaringly apparent as I walked across that stage on my graduation day. The prospect of appearing disabled in front of thousands of festive onlookers terrified me, so I needed an excuse for my reluctance to walk that would not reveal my carefully-concealed disability. Tying my decision to not walk at my graduation ceremony to my potential inability to obtain the most prestigious honors possible seemed like an infallible way to soothe my insecurities about publicly presenting as disabled.
One day, during office hours, my Family Psychology professor broached the topic of graduation and asked if I was looking forward to my upcoming graduation ceremony. I hesitated as I mulled over how on Earth I should answer the inadvertently challenging question. I couldn’t possibly let on how insecure I felt about my grades, and I worried that if I disclosed the truth — how anxious I felt about my cerebral palsy “showing” publicly on my graduation day — my disability identity could overshadow my humanity.
“I’m actually considering not walking in graduation,” I said, fervently attempting not to reveal my mounting anxiety.
“Why not?” she replied. “I’m sure your family would love to see you graduate.”
A pang of guilt immediately washed over me as I thought of my family, who, for the past several weeks, had been valiantly attempting to convince me that I just had to walk in my graduation. But, I felt a far stronger conviction to escaping my insecurities than to earn my family’s approval.
“They would,” I responded carefully. “I just don’t know if walking in graduation is really my thing.”
“You wouldn’t want to regret not walking in graduation,” my professor said knowingly.
The conversation soon shifted to midterms and finals, but I was deep in thought, contemplating my decision and its possible repercussions. Was I foolish to impose conditions on walking in my graduation ceremony? Was publicly appearing imperfect, either academically or ability-wise, as grave as I had imagined? Would I regret not participating in such a significant rite of passage?
A few weeks later, as my professor spoke, directly to me, it seemed, on the symbolic nature of graduation ceremonies, I was immediately struck with a change of heart. Walking in my college graduation would provide me with the opportunity to let go of the insecurities, the anxiety, the depression, the internalized ableism, the loneliness, and the secrecy — and move towards a life of freedom from my mental confines. I craved the opportunity to turn that tassel, to celebrate the trials and triumphs that led to my greatest achievement, and to relish in the chance to begin life anew. Why should I deny myself the ability to move on?
As I turned to leave the lecture hall, I paused, strode up to my professor, and said, smiling, “You’ve convinced me. I’m going to walk in graduation this June.”
On my graduation day, as walked across the stage, as I caressed the delicate tassel dangling from my cap, poised to turn it from left to right, I was overcome with emotion, struck with sheer gratitude for the professor who encouraged me to transcend my insecurities and move forward in life. The moment the tassel reached the right side of my cap, I resolved to leave behind the emotional pain I felt throughout my time in college.
After the ceremony, my Family Psychology professor asked me how I felt having walked in graduation. The sense of lightness, freedom, and joy I had felt was indescribable, and no words could fully express my gratitude for her role in my journey to the graduation stage. As I fought back tears, I finally spoke the words on my heart, even in their inadequacy in conveying the power of the moment.
“It felt amazing. I’m so happy I walked today. Thank you for everything.”