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Commencement

The Man in the Top Hat

6.1.20

Photo of the author sitting with two friends, all in masks, in the Radcliffe Quadrangle as they watched virtual Commencement

The author (right) sitting with blockmates Mike Shirek (left) and Ernie Omondi (center) as they watched virtual Commencement

Photograph courtesy of Caroline Englemayer


The author (right) sitting with blockmates Mike Shirek (left) and Ernie Omondi (center) as they watched virtual Commencement

Photograph courtesy of Caroline Englemayer

One of my favorite parts of Commencement is the tall man in the top hat. For many who attend Harvard’s graduation, the Commencement afternoon speaker is the main attraction. Audience members know that, if they brave the heat of the Cambridge spring and make it through hours of ceremonies, they will be rewarded with words of wisdom from a luminary selected by the University to impart advice to the graduating class. But long before that, I look forward to hearing from one of the sometimes overlooked stars of the show: Peter J. Koutoujian, M.P.A. ’03, the sheriff of Middlesex County. At the start of the Morning Exercises, sporting that black top hat and a large golden pin, he strides onto the stage, peers out into a packed Tercentenary Theatre, puts his hands on his hips, and pauses for a few seconds. Then he dramatically pounds his staff on the dais and declares, in an incredibly strong Boston accent, “The high sheriff of Middlesex County now declares that the meeting will be...in order!”

Why do we, in the twenty-first century, still have the sheriff start the graduation? Centuries ago, the custom made perfect sense: Commencement involved feasting and drinking, which sometimes spiraled out of control and ended in fistfights. Sheriffs had to keep the peace while the president conferred the degrees. Nearly 400 years after the first Commencement, though, the risk of drunken brawling is (presumably) significantly lower. Today, the sheriff’s call to order serves a different purpose: it reminds us that, for a few hours, we enter the realm of tradition and ritual and shun the usual dictates of efficiency. The sheriff doesn’t need to start Commencement; without him, Harvard could shave a few minutes off an already lengthy ceremony. Yet his introduction signals that speed isn’t the point of the event. Instead, the rites are a chance to revel in the pomp and circumstance of centuries-old Harvard traditions, and to take our time as we celebrate the triumphs of the graduating class.

I found myself thinking about the sheriff and his dramatic staff-pounding as I watched my own virtual graduation on Thursday. After months of quarantining at home in New York City, I drove back to campus to pick up a friend who planned to stay with my family after his Harvard housing ended the next day. The trip offered me the rare chance to reunite (from a safe social distance, of course) with several members of my blocking group who have stayed in the Cambridge area. Winding through Connecticut on an almost empty interstate, I thought about what it would be like to walk through the Yard again, to have some return to normalcy, at least in setting, by coming back to campus—yet to experience a drastic departure from centuries of Harvard tradition in my non-Commencement graduation. With my world shrunken to encompass my family’s apartment and not much else, I wondered whether the trip to Boston would feel like a journey back to a time before my friends and I had to navigate de-densification and social distancing. 

I gathered with two blockmates on the Quad to watch the three videos that marked our graduation: the University-wide livestream, followed by online celebrations specifically tailored to the College and Currier House. As we sat at an outdoor table next to Cabot Dining Hall, clad in our facemasks, I felt the unbridled joy of sharing in the celebratory moment with some of the friends who had been the core of my time at Harvard. As I looked out over the Quad—a popular sunny-day hangout now empty of undergraduates—I felt oddly connected to other members of the class of 2020. The online festivities made it possible to communicate with friends in a way that couldn’t happen at an in-person event: as we watched the videos, we exchanged texts with friends quarantined throughout the world, all reacting to the ceremonies in real time. During the Currier video, which featured slides honoring each of the graduates, texts flooded in when my photo appeared on the screen: “Congratulations.” “So proud of you.” “Yay!” We didn’t have to worry about interrupting the ceremony with our conversations; we got messages of congratulations and cheer from loved ones around the country, many of whom would have been unable to attend an in-person event in normal times.

At the same time, I found myself reflecting on the bizarre experience of graduating via livestream. The videos offered a bare-bones version of the essential parts of the ceremony: brief remarks from President Lawrence S. Bacow, the awarding of diplomas, the address from the distinguished speaker (Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron). But the pomp and circumstance were largely absent; the typical tributes to honorary-degree recipients didn’t appear. And while the sheriff of Middlesex County offered a message of congratulations to the graduating class in the video montage at the beginning of the livestream, his formal call to order didn’t make the cut.

On one level, that move makes complete sense. Attention spans shrink significantly when in-person events migrate to video; it would have been a shame for the livestream to feature speaker after speaker droning on incessantly. Yet I couldn’t help but think that the parameters of the online ceremony had made it impossible to include some of the best parts of a normal Commencement. I always love the rituals and hoopla because they offer a welcome break from the rhythm of everyday College life. The typical Harvard student tries to cram as much as possible into every day, juggling a demanding course-load and time-consuming extracurricular activities, while attempting to squeeze in time with friends and significant others. Some of my friends’ Google Calendars teem with so many color-coded commitments that I struggle to make sense of them.

COVID-19 has taken away moments of spontaneity and imposed an unrelenting sense of focus: What is the shortest path through the grocery store, so I can minimize contact with other customers? How few times can I leave the house this week to make sure I do all my essential errands?

The pace of Commencement is different. From the moment the sheriff strides onto stage, the audience understands that the point of the ceremony is to luxuriate in the achievements of the graduating class. The quirky ceremony is designed to create the chance to pause, to reflect, to take a deep breath before proceeding to the next chapter. Was this part of what we had lost?  

A global pandemic might seem like an odd time to mourn the absence of archaic rituals, but such joyful celebrations seem particularly hard to come by in these difficult times. COVID-19 has taken away moments of spontaneity and imposed an unrelenting sense of focus: What is the shortest path through the grocery store, so I can minimize contact with other customers? How few times can I leave the house this week to make sure I do all my essential errands? At a time when we don’t have many chances to exult in leisurely moments of joy, I found myself regretting at least one ceremonial opportunity to just kick back.

But even that slight disappointment couldn’t take away my euphoria at being able to reunite with some of my closest friends to celebrate our graduation. As we watched the “proceedings,” our conversation drifted from our thoughts on virtual graduation to how we had met and what we would miss about the College. We reminisced about late nights spent in the basement of the first-year dorm Mower, expeditions to Boston’s North End, and that one time at Harvard-Yale. No spotty WiFi connections or Zoom malfunctions got in the way. I laughed like I hadn’t laughed in months.  

After President Bacow officially conferred degrees on the graduates, my friends and I opened a bottle of champagne and made a toast to the class of 2020. A man sitting a few tables over saw us shouted, “Congrats!” and began to clap, prompting a handful of sunbathers on the lawn to join in. In the short break between the College’s video and the Currier tribute, we decided to lie down on the lawn ourselves. Feeling the soft grass beneath me, enjoying the slight breeze that crossed the lawn, and watching the wispy clouds pass lazily overhead, I felt, for a moment, transported back to the pre-COVID era, where such acts of leisure hadn’t yet become irresponsible or dangerous. Even when I remembered that we were all wearing masks and sprawling six feet apart from each other, the feeling of happiness lingered. I had returned to the campus that had become home, surrounded by friends who had been by my side for four years. When I looked down after watching the clouds, I saw a few little kids biking around the Quad, giggling even as they tugged at their masks, feeling some carefree joy in a time stripped of spontaneity and a world made remote. I looked back at my friends and grinned. 

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