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The usher's tale–or, behind the scenes at Commencement
Commencement is magic and memorable—but it’s also a mob scene. Add up those numbers streaming into the Saratoga Performing Arts Center: 648 graduates plus ten master’s recipients, 6,000 guests, and a couple hundred professors. Throw in three honorary-degree awardees and a troupe of bagpipers, and you have a crowd requiring expert care and handling.
Each year, a platoon of staffers and volunteers smoothly takes charge. They set up everything: an information table, wheelchair seating, bouquet vendors, photographers, even blankets. And they run the rehearsal where seniors learn how to fasten their regalia and how to pick up their diplomas at the registrar’s table on their way into SPAC. (What grads receive onstage is actually a diploma case.)
It goes off like clockwork, even on a damp 50-degree morning like this one, May 19. Ushers wearing warm layers, sturdy shoes, and purple “Staff” ribbons hand out programs. Under a light drizzle, the information table does brisk business: Someone’s lost a diploma, someone else needs safety pins, a regalia-clad professor stops by for bobby pins to shore up her cap. One young man simply proffers cap, hood, gown, and a bewildered “I need help assembling my garments.” From missing tassels to pre-event jitters, the well-prepared staff handles it all.
At the first sound of pipe and drum, camera-bearing guests jockey for photo ops as ushers urge them to step back from the processional lines of incoming students. “There’s plenty of time later for photos,” the ushers say, with little success. This moment, crammed with heady anticipation, is the shot everyone wants.
Once the ceremony is under way, workers grab coffee, find seats, and catch snippets of a dozen speeches. Tom Brokaw, award-winning former anchor of the NBC Nightly News, receivs his honorary degree and then gets a big hand when he addresses the grads as “my classmates.” Applause again when he jokes that “the real world” is like junior high school: “same petty jealousies, irrational juvenile behavior, same uncertainty.” President Philip Glotzbach engagingly praises fresh-start moments like graduation, when we can be like tourists who marvel at the sculpted angels in architecture that locals take for granted.
Two hours later, after tassels are swung to
the left and caps flung, it’s time for the recessional, that lovely symbolic moment when two lines of Skidmore faculty applaud the graduates emerging between their ranks. “Here’s where it falls apart,” says a
veteran staffer philosophically; as she well knows, each year the recessional slows as students pause to hug faculty, friends, and family. This year it unravels when everyone beelines away to scarf up refreshments under a soggy canopy.
Once again celebration trumps crowd control—and that’s fine with the ushers. They pop open their umbrellas and melt into the crowd to end another magical, memorable commencement. —BAM
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