Commencement really is a transitional moment, isn’t it? The old ceremony is designed to recognize educational and personal accomplishments, to give a hearty nod to the village that made it possible through various forms of support. I can be relied upon to shed a few tears–I blame my contact lenses–before the tedium takes over. Like many in the audience and sitting in the graduate chairs, I find Commencement to be a moving ceremony.

Holy Names University was fortunate to have Gwen Ifill as a Commencement speaker this year. I have long admired her skill, poise, and intelligence as a journalist and news anchor. Having such a recognized and respected person as a speaker was a coup for the little, often-overlooked university in the hills. The surprise, for me, was what a wonderful match she was for the university and its graduates. In retrospect, of course she was.

HNU is a pretty diverse place. (Actually, it’s the most diverse university of its size on the west coast.)  The students are frequently the first of their families to graduate from college. Although the values and faith of the church are the bedrock of this institution, it’s not a preachy place. There’s room under the university’s umbrella for a lot of us, wherever we may be on the faith continuum.

This year was interesting. Perhaps because the university’s new-ish President Hynes has found his legs and was able to really shape and participate in the ceremony, and, indeed, he is responsible for convincing Ms. Ifill she could fit HNU into her busy schedule. (Honestly, I think he wore her down, but she was a good sport about it!)

Ms. Ifill reached her audience. The child of a minister, her values rest on bedrock similar to the university’s values. Many of the graduating students also grew up in a church community. Although her talk did not focus on scripture, she acknowledged the values that send HNU students into the world in service to their community (building houses in Mississippi and protesting at the School of the Americas, for example).

Commencement became a little like church, with an occasional “Amen”, or a respectful shout out; the participation was organic and supportive and celebratory. It felt good! Even more gratifying, Gwen Ifill looked like she enjoyed being there. (And considering the parade of shoes those gals were wearing to march down a hundred stairs and teeter across the dais in, what woman wouldn’t enjoy the show?)

Isn’t that what makes some of life’s best moments–when you are able to do just the right thing for the right person or group of people. In that moment, the relationship can be transformed, as I think it was that day. Ms. Ifill received something I don’t think she expected–she clicked into this place with these people. The recipients, the graduates, may have given more than they knew.

Before Commencement day, it looked possible that Michael & I would drive Gwenn Ifill to the airport after she spoke. I shrieked, “We can’t do it! We have karma!” I was remembering the 2003 Commencement at Rockford College, which was a real riot. And by “riot,” I don’t mean a rollicking good time.

I could say a lot about that year’s speaker Chris Hedges, also a minister’s son. (Michael and I picked him up at the airport the night before & I drove the getaway car to get him away from the college after the …er…I mean, after the audience reacted negatively to his thought-provoking speech.) I could I say a lot about that commencement, but most importantly, I felt like this year’s ceremony represented the pendulum’s swing back to karmic rectitude in some odd way.

For the purpose of this post, I will say what a gift it was to listen to a speaker who comes from a solid place, whose intention is to challenge, but also to engage and recognize the achievements of others. It’s a life lesson and a nice gift to send with graduates, as they go to find their next opportunity.

Have you been to a particularly memorable Commencement? Tell me about it!

If you are interested in the Rockford College Commencement, google “rockford college chris hedges” for a video of the attempted speech. The most thoughtful account of the incident was written up in the Chicago Reader:

What makes a hero?

Since I started blogging, I’ve noticed that there are times when “themes” emerge in the public discourse or in the small circles through which I move. Themes are great for blogs, so my antennae are on alert for these gold nuggets. I’ve recently had cause to think about people acting heroically, in part because of this man:

Last week Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker ran into a burning building to save a woman who lives in his neighborhood, which I think is amazing. I mean, who (besides our everyday hero, the Firefighter) has the fortitude to run into a burning building? Talk about serving the public…

In thinking about heroism, I recalled a moment of personal cowardice to put things into perspective. Although, there are times in my life when I have done The Right Thing, I haven’t always played my A game… When I first left Maine at the tender age of 23, I lived in Santa Cruz for a couple of years. My grandmother June came to visit me and we went out on the Wharf, where we were amazed to see a pelican perched.

As we stood a few yards from it, snapping pictures and marveling, it took flight, straight at us! I shrieked and hid behind my grandmother, who was in her 70s at the time. We had a good laugh about it all, but it was a moment for me. I had a little chat with myself:  You don’t jump behind Gram, you jump in front of her. Got it? Good.

My March 6 post was about seeing a young man in a restaurant perform the Heimlich Maneuver on one of his dining companions. When I first realized what was happening, he was doing it without success and he began to panic. He stopped and asked the people in the room for help. My husband stood beside him and calmly told him he was doing the right thing and to keep doing it. He resumed his efforts and a moment later his friend was gasping for air.

Sometimes being heroic takes a team. In the above case, being heroic meant doing what is needed–an active role for some, a supporting role for others. And just because you are the right person at the right time doesn’t mean you know how: you may be the one who figures it out.

Can you think of some everyday or extraordinary heroism that you’ve seen recently? What does heroism look like to you?