It wasn't that the graduation festivities were without value—a class day speaker was very candid. A political science professor read from the Declaration of Independence. But those too were mitigated—she was being candid about her lack of employability after four years in college. The professor first pointed out that the Declaration of Independence has value, despite author Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, since John Adams, who helped, was anti-slavery. As if the concepts depended on the moral purity of who wrote them, which is pretty much where we are at nowadays. But by the time I cut it down to 700 words, this is what was left. Make no mistake: our family had an enjoyable graduation weekend, but there was a constant cloud of the school's own creating, which I tried to capture here. Based on some of my email, you'd think I'd written a hate polemic.
Southern California houses don’t have gutters. Not enough rain. I wish I could say I noticed this, with my keen journalist’s eye. But it was my wife who, strolling around the lovely college town of Claremont, an hour east of Los Angeles, pointed it out. That happens a lot.
What I noticed was the sign for the “Black Graduation Ceremony” two days before the full commencement at Pomona College, the liberal arts school where my kid got his degree on Sunday.
The sign was the first thing I saw stepping on campus, and set the tone. What could black commencement be? Like black proms at southern high schools? A sign of fracture and exclusion? Even here, at an epicenter of inclusion? Pomona placed 9th out of 2,475 colleges on a ranking of the most diverse schools.
I started with my kid: what gives? He said that there are several separate graduations—also a “Lavender Commencement” for LGBTQ community. No big deal. He was entirely non-plussed, as if I had asked about some mundane aspect of student life: "And all these backpacks, what are they for?"
We had come 2,000 miles to attend three events. The first, a pair of brunch receptions for the Economics and International Studies departments—his degree is in both. His teachers were outgoing, we got to meet friends, teachers and classmates we had only heard of. It was great.
Next to me in the buffet line was someone who seemed a good a place to continue my investigation. Lorn S. Foster, the Charles and Henrietta Johnson Detoy Professor of American Government, whose field of study is "race, community and power." I asked about black commencement.
"For kids who don't have a place at Pomona," he said. "It's a space for them to be expressive."
Do they not have a place in the larger school because they are denied it? Or because they refuse it? It seems an important distinction.
Foster, retiring after 40 years, mentioned the LGBTQ commencement and similar events.
"They're celebrations," he said.
Fair enough, and I tried to enter into the spirit of celebration, but kept getting nudged out.
The next day, Class Day, in cool weather—California's "May Gray." The class day address was by Shahriar Shahriari, a respected, popular math professor. I would summarize his talk as: the United States is an imperialist power meddling in the affairs of nations across the globe, including his home of Iran.
True enough, though if he has lived here for the past 40 years for reasons beyond this country being an iron fist of repression crushing the dreams of freedom worldwide, he kept those reasons to himself. I wish he hadn't.
The rest of that program nestled in that sweet spot of mundanity that isn't bad enough to be comic, alas, but never rose to the level of actually being interesting. When I looked over at my son to gauge his reaction, he formed his fingers into a pistol, placed it to his temple and pulled the trigger.
"Maybe we should have crashed the black commencement," I suggested.
The next day, at graduation, class speaker Maria Jose Vides Orellana gave me my first trigger warning.
"I want to give a general content warning, for references and mentions of violence, deportation, anti-blackness, police brutality and sexual assault," she began, also offering up a fair summary of how the college experience was presented to us parents.
Much talk of "marginalization," and I was tempted to shout, "If you want to be marginalized, try being a newspaper reporter in 2018, or a conservative white Jewish male at a liberal arts college." But the truth is, sympathizing with yourself is a skill everyone masters all too thoroughly. What's the point of being woke, as the kids say, if the take-away, "I'm better than you," is the same conclusion every hater comes to, no college necessary?
Trump's America offers a steady drumbeat that certain people don't belong. So it's heartbreaking, if perhaps expected, that the object of this scorn concludes: "Hey, we don't belong."
Belonging can be seized without fanfare. One of my kid's roommates is a U.S. Marine studying water management—he's off to Stanford for his masters. He showed us an engraved K-bar knife his buddies gave him as a graduation present. We all admired it, and while I wished one moment in the two-day ceremony acknowledged the presence of guys like him, or my son, they both seem to know who they are and what they are doing, no public validation necessary. I guess that's white privilege.
My colleague at the Sun-Times, Alexandra Arriaga, wrote a response to this column. While I don't agree with how she characterized my column—I was wondering why the separate commencements were necessary at one of the most inclusive colleges in the country, not complaining I wasn't invited—it is worth reading.