I write this letter today on what should have been one of the most joyous occasions of my life but ended in tears. It was graduation day, and I was to receive my masters degree. At first, it seemed trivial to me to attend the ceremony. The most important part was the haArd work and dedication I put forth to achieve this goal, not the recognition. But as the day approached, I became more and more excited to attend the ceremony. My family would be there; my friends would be there; I would be there.
As we gathered inside, the room was abuzz. Does anyone have a safety pin? one woman asked. Which way does this thing go? a gentleman inquired. All of us were adorned in our caps and gowns with colorful tassels to distinguish our degrees, our achievements. Some had cords of gold. Others wore hoods, striped with the colors of their chosen profession. There were new friends being made and old acquaintances reuniting. The excitement was mounting when the line began to move, and we looked at one another. This is it. This is what we came for! I said.
We marched outside with the bagpipes leading the way. The sun was shining, and a slight breeze was attempting to blow away our caps. As I searched the crowd for any familiar faces, I spotted my father, camera in hand. Dad! Over here! I shouted, waving my hand in the air. Click. There it was, a moment in time, captured on film forever. My moment. Our moment. Thats when it all began to make sense. All of us in that line were there to show the world we had made it! We had strived, we had struggled, but most of all, we had survived. We deserved this day in the sun. We deserved that walk across the stage and to hear our name announced throughout the crowd. There was an attachment to my announcement card. They were going to mention that I was a third-generation MAT graduate of Rockford College. My father before me and his mother before him had each received their masters in the art of teaching through Rockford College.
As we sang the National Anthem, I was filled with pride. I knew that others before me had given much to allow this day to happen. Today would be another day in our history, but little did I know for what reasons. Dr. Agnews introductory speech caught my attention. Our guest speaker, Mr. Chris Hedges, seemed to have been everywhere and had seen so much, and I was excited to hear what he had to say: some congratulations, some words of wisdom, and a few well wishes before he sent us on our way, possibly. It was only a few moments into his speech when I began to feel uncomfortable. I looked around at the crowd and noticed a few people with the same puzzled look on their faces. This was not a congratulations speech, nor was it an inspirational speech. It was a war protest. This man had chosen our day to promote his book. This was not the place for talk of war and death. This was not the place for talk of bloodshed and tyrants. This was not the place for talk of political deception. THIS WAS NOT THE PLACE. The audience was becoming outraged. People were shouting at him, Get off the stage! I was so disturbed that I got up and walked back to where my family was sitting. As I approached them, I began to cry. Why was he doing this? I looked my mother in the eyes and said, I will stay if you want, but I no longer wish to be here.
She told me this was still my day, and I deserved to walk across the stage. As I returned to my seat, the tension was becoming even more apparent. The sound system had been turned off, and many of us cheered, thinking the speech was over. When the sound returned, the school president, Dr. Pribbenow, reminded us that we are a liberal college and how we pride ourselves on our freedoms. Yet, we were told to protest in silence as this man continued his political rampage.
I became upset with the school for choosing this individual for our guest speaker. I became outraged at the school for allowing this to continue. But most of all, I became ashamed that I continued to sit there. Right or wrong in his words, this was neither the time nor the place for this speech. So, I did what I felt was right. I stood up and turned my back to the stage. I was not alone. I noticed many of the students and audience members had done the same. I turned to the faculty and noticed many of them with their hands covering part of their faces. Were they embarrassed, too? It was at that moment when a group of us decided we had had enough, joined hands, and walked out of the ceremony. As we reached the top of the hill, a young girl sitting in a chair turned to me and said, Congratulations. Others approached us and said how sorry they were that this had happened.
Many people may agree with what Mr. Hedges had to say, but many others will disagree. The facts or meaning are not the issue to me, but it is the timing and the place in which he delivered this speech that I disagree with. Had this been an open forum for discussion about the current war in Iraq, I would have gladly listened to what he had to say, but it was not. This was a graduation ceremony. A day to be remembered for its wonders and for the accomplishments of those in attendance. I can only hope that those responsible for the selection of our speaker and the approval of the speech recognize their wrongdoing and formally apologize to the students, family, and friends who attended. For if they do not see that this was not the place, I truly wonder what they see at all.
Joanna McGinty graduated from Rockford College the day of the commencement.