Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Middle stole my graduation

On this week's season finale of The Middle (a show that has stayed just barely above the threshold for what my wife and I will continue watching), one of the plotlines involved bumbling but overzealous daughter Sue (whose portrayal by Eden Sher is one of the show's highlights) who aspired to get the "perfect attendance" award at her junior high school graduation. A clerical error makes her have to prove she didn't miss the one day the administration thinks she was out (all the while having to explain who she is to teachers and administrators she has seen every day, underscoring her struggle for recognition).

After getting her proof, she sits with great anticipation of the honor at the graduation ceremony, and in an entirely predictable sitcom twist, they get her name wrong (and not merely mispronouncing it; they called her "Barb"). And for a moment there's that flash of disappointment across her face:
But after a moment she just shrugs, arms extended out from her sides, and laughs about it.
The family in the audience starts laughing, too, and in the voiceover by Patricia Heaton she notes it's these moments where things don't go as expected that make for the best memories (and then a montage of such scenes from the series ensued, in what seemed a possible cap for the series if it didn't get picked up for another season). [This whole sequence can be seen here, by the way.]

Sitting on my sofa I watched the graduation scene an felt a sense of déjà vu, as that's more or less what happened at my college graduation.

I didn't have any sort of perfect attendance, but after nearly a decade of taking part-time classes while I worked close to full-time to pay for my own education, and being the first member of either side of my family to graduate from a university, there was no small level of anticipation by my family to see me in that cap and gown, getting handed that diploma.

The way the process went was this: We, the graduates, wrote our name on a card in the order first name-middle name-last name. No last name first stuff; just straight-ahead, left-to-right arrangement. We were brought up row-by-row to the side of the stage and queued up. We handed the card to an older professor in our department who stood by the side of the stage with a microphone. As the graduate started up the steps to the stage the professor read the name into the microphone to be broadcast through the P.A. so the graduate should get up on stage just in time for the applause of the family and friends in the crowd. Person after person in front of me that's how it went.

I got up to the professor and handed him my card. I was directed to start up the steps and I did, and part way up I heard the professor's voice over the P.A. The first thing I heard: my middle name, followed by my last name and then looping back to my first.

Again, my name was written first-middle-last on the card; he needed only read left-to-right, as any professor in the humanities conceivably had been doing most of his life.

When I got to the top of the steps and emerged on stage, at the pause after the name, there wasn't really applause, as my family (who was seated a good distance back) had to stop and parse out what had been read, and by the time they put it together and realized it was me, the next name was starting to be read. I was told later by said family members in attendance that they did cheer, but in the moment I was having a bit of an out-of-body experience and cannot claim to remember hearing anything after the incorrectly ordered name.

As I crossed the stage, shaking the hand of the university president and being handed a rolled up sheet of paper that was the diploma substitute (the actual one came many weeks later), I wasn't really in the moment. When I hit the spot on the stage when typically graduates raised a fist in celebration (or some similar exuberant gesture), I simply paused, faced the audience, and lifted my arms straight out from my shoulders in a gesture that, in my mind, represented the thought that dominated my mind the entire time I was up there: Well, there you go.

Pretty much like Sue Heck did on The Middle.

As much as it reinforced my cynicism at the time, the faux pas at my graduation ultimately was far better than had my name been read correctly. I got an anecdote to tell that I'll be able to tell longer than I'll remember anything I ostensibly learned to have earned the diploma.

Never underestimate the importance of having a good story. Well, a story.

Just don't be surprised if some 14 years later that same story (or a slight variation) shows up on a sitcom. And be glad it didn't show up on a crime drama.


  1. I have no clue what that show even is but now you've made me want to watch it, your description is great!

  2. You survived your graduation! I don't even remember mine, really. One of 20,000 doesn't really stand out.

  3. We totally cheered. Just probably for the person who came after you. :)

    Arthur Hein Douglas...I had totally forgotten about that.


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