It’s more than just flipping your tassels

Published 8:23 am Monday, June 24, 2019

I love graduations. There’s something about witnessing the sense of achievement and possibility that permeates the air. I even have a favorite graduation theme: “You’re not finished, you’ve just begun.”

While graduation signifies an ending, the term “commencement” is used to signify a beginning since this is not only an opportunity to mark completion, but also to underscore the beginning of a new chapter of life.

In some ways, commencements, regardless of whether it’s high school or trade school, college or university, provide their own magic. I can’t help but find myself humming and tapping rhythmically as the soon-to-be graduates march in and the band plays ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’ Then there are the ritual robes, the mortarboard caps with tassels, the rousing – but too often boring – speeches, the flash of cameras, and of course, all those tears from family members signaling that sense of relief as well as accomplishment.

I try to reflect on at least one graduation every spring; one I either attended in person or heard of. Since my daughters are of generally accepted post-graduate age and the little ones have yet to march across the stage, I like to be awash in the energy of attainment and the synergy of embarking on one’s next great life adventure.

Since attending the commencement of my cousin at, of all venues, Dartmouth College in bucolic Hanover, New Hampshire, back in the late seventies, Ivy League schools’ commencements have always fascinated me. Maybe it’s because these schools are supposed to be the ones that produce the future movers and shakers of America, and you wonder what inspiration is imparted to them before they grasp the gauntlet and accept their new life’s calling.

This year, the ‘Mean Green’ invited the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma as speaker. Some of you may recall that he was the one who played that ‘oversized violin’ at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

I don’t know what those kids expected from a musician as their speaker, but he delivered provocative and challenging remarks in a calm and soothing voice, reminding students that they have a power that should never be abused. The Chinese-born cello player challenged students to be human beings before they are professionals or careerists. Most interestingly, he urged stillness.

“Learn to listen to the voice in the wilderness,” he said. “Learn to be the voice in the wilderness.”

That’s powerful stuff to give a group of young people who’re going to easily earn six figures upon graduation with most of them headed to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the world of venture capitalism. When you think about it, that’s pretty strong stuff for the children of the many conformists who we often hear don’t embrace the value of humanity.

“Practice your humanity,” were the final words Yo-Yo Ma spoke.

That’s pretty solid and stirring advice in what’s become a “soulless” age.

While many students don’t remember their commencement speaker (46 years later, I can’t recall mine at UNC back in 1973!), I bet it’s unlikely those Dartmouth grads will forget the speaker they experienced. I just hope Yo-Yo Ma’s call to “practice humanity” is one that will be heeded. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, that graduates have to be spurred on to practice their humanity; but maybe it’s because so much of our world is inhumane, placing profits over people, and his admonishment was appropriate.

They aren’t going into a world with their student-loan debt instantly repaid like those kids at Morehouse College. Cynically, based on their backgrounds, they probably don’t have that worry hanging over their heads.

But they, and hundreds of thousands more who turned those tassels this spring, will face challenges, and now they have an added responsibility: to go out, find a cause, and tackle it. And, in the words of Yo-Yo Ma, to “practice humanity.”

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.