Mortar envy

Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Richard Cason

Was I envious -- nay, jealous of the fall 2006 graduates of Southeast Missouri State University?

I suppose that I was. I could have given my time in college a little longer; OK ... community college. Just the same, there's a ton of stuff I missed out on: Lively debate, socializing, networking, etc. Sure, I've been to a few college parties but I always felt like an intruder. That same old feeling was alive and well when I crashed the biggest party of all: the Dec. 16, 2006 SEMO graduation at the Show-Me Center.

Since it was a somewhat formal occasion I thought I should dress better than I normally would. I dug through my clothes hamper and found my whitest button-down shirt and my blackest sweater with the least amount of holes. But those Show-Me Center patrons saw right through me and my cheap disguise; they knew that I didn't belong there.

The place was swarming with people whose number had to have been in the thousands. I tried my best to forget my claustrophobic paranoia as I waded through the people trying to find open space. In my search for more breathing room I noticed that no matter the event the Show-Me Center is always selling refreshments. You expect all that and sometimes beer when, say, Ron White is in town. I remember when Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court spoke here and the demand for pizza was especially high. At a commencement exercise, though?

Before the ceremonies I sought out a few graduates in their final moments before they crossed over to the dark side, commonly known as "the real world". Most of them, frankly, had nothing to say. Nerves, I guess.

Cody Bell wasn't shy. After identifying myself I said, "So you're finally here; how do you feel?" The 24-year-old five-and-a-half-year senior from St. Louis replied, "Kind of shocked. I didn't think I was gonna make it." He and his friend, 24-year-old Nick Caputa, also from St. Louis, were both earning degrees in construction management design. Like Cody, Nick was a five-year senior. "Does anyone graduate in four years," I asked Nick. He managed an indifferent "nah."

I found a seat in an empty section of the second level, roughly to the upper right of the Southeast Brass Quintet. The music that the Quintet selected for the prelude alternated between ballroom dancing and something you would hear at a New Orleans jazz funeral. Around 2 p.m. the band began playing "March" by G.F. Handel. First the faculty marched in, draped in hoods and gowns decorated with different colors, tassels and cords. One woman's wide-brimmed black hat and red gown reminded me of Cardinal Fang from that Monty Python sketch "The Spanish Inquisition."

Next came the graduates, followed by the Grand Marshall, a bunch of other people that I didn't know why they needed to be there and so on. One person in the march did catch my eye. This would have been the guy who was carrying what, to me, looked like an oaken coat-and-hatrack. Turns out that the rack in question was the University Mace, a six-foot staff symbolizing SEMO's heritage and purpose. Looked like furniture to me.

After all of this initial pomp and circumstance, SEMO President Dr. Kenneth W. Dobbins had his opening remarks and then he introduced this guy and that guy and someone from this department and a person from over there and let's not forget her...

Delivering the commencement address was General James T. Conway, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the only SEMO alumnus to ever reach that level of command in the United States military. An impressive pedigree I had to admit. He spoke of his time at Southeast, his military service and the lessons he learned along the way. Then he began talking about how we are a nation at war, dangerous times and things of this nature. If the graduates didn't have enough reason to start drinking after the ceremony, they now had plenty. But General Conway's overall message did come to a point which was to "give it your best shot". As he concluded his remarks he received a standing ovation then took his seat. And then he got right back up again as Dr. Dobbins presented him with an honorary doctorate making him Doctor General James T. Conway.

After much delay it was time for the main event and I was quickly losing interest. First came the students from the School of Graduate Studies. Someone removed its red banner and pole and brought it to the stage ... and then it hit me: Red banners carried one-by-one, large audience, ceremony steeped in tradition, triumphant music -- I've seen this elsewhere.

I was just too restless to sit through anymore and so I left walked out into the lobby where I watched a little more of the ceremony on a monitor but I soon left altogether. I have always been the type where if I'm uncomfortable in a situation I don't hesitate to make a break for it. Inferiority complexes aside, I mean no disrespect toward the institution of Southeast Missouri State University and her graduates have every reason in the world to be proud. But college life in all its forms is a world unto itself and it is one that I cannot and never will identify with.

But if I may, I would like to impart my own words of wisdom to any graduates who may be reading this: The sledge hammer of life is going to come down hard and often. Bills are going to stack up, plans will have to be altered and basically, things are not going to occur quite how you think they are or would like them to. You're going to have to improvise, be quick on your feet and, when things are comfortable, avoid complacency.

Above all else, when the chips are down, (and they will be) when you've exhausted all resources, when you feel your most vulnerable, when you think you don't have a prayer in the world, when you have nowhere left to turn and you're a million miles away from what your purpose is, don't quit. Don't ever quit. Take a moment, evaluate the situation and find your way back.

Take it from someone who was on a rocket from 1996-2003 when suddenly his radio career went kaput, whose girlfriend dumped him and he found himself living on couches and in basements for awhile. Someone whose will to do anything was broken, went to the hills for awhile, felt sorry himself but eventually put things back together.

Yes, that sad sack was yours truly. But, hey -- I'm writing for OFF again, I get the occasional stand-up gig on the road and my MySpace page is coming along nicely. Eventually, things will be right where I want them to be and if you stick with it, whatever it is, they will be for you too.

Not bad for a dropout, huh?

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