The Other Graduate


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View from row thirteen, house right.

Today was commencement at the University of Southern California. The morning was the general university ceremony, which I didn’t attend, and the afternoon was the ceremony for the School of Cinematic Arts, which I attended, but didn’t walk in. I’d already received my diploma in the mail, so for a long time I didn’t plan to attend at all- there didn’t seem to be much choice. Then as the semester wore on and I realized that I would be going out into the real world and would likely lose touch with some of the great classmates that I’d spent the past three years with, I got sentimental and decided that I wanted to go so that I could see everybody one last time.

It’s a strange experience, attending your own graduation from the audience. In some ways everything is directed specifically at you and in other ways you are very extremely anonymous in the crowd. Without a cap and gown I could slip unnoticed through a crowd and sit wherever I wanted and share the experience with the Curmudgeonly Lion instead of searching for him frantically in the thirty seconds on stage before hearing my name get called. ( He assured me that he would’ve brought an air horn for when my name was called- so maybe it wouldn’t have been too hard after all).

I couldn’t have done all of this without the Curmudgeonly Lion. I might’ve been getting the degree, but we were both graduating. And I’m not just saying this in the abstract sense of emotional support, but In a very concrete sense that there are things I wouldn’t be able to do if it weren’t for him and graduate school is one of them. And just in case I needed an example to hammer this realization home, I got one right after the ceremony.

So the story goes like this: the ceremony included two keynote speakers- Paul Feig (director of “Bridesmaids”), and Susan Downey (producer of “Sherlock Holmes”, also married to Robert Downey Jr). I was pleased to hear that Mr Feig would be speaking but I was ridiculously, fangirl excited to hear about Susan Downey. As near as I am able to point to someone and say: I want to be like this person when I grow up, then Susan Downey would be it. A woman producer. A fellow Chicagoan. A USC alum. I feel hope. I’d wanted to meet her since I first read about her two or three years ago. I even tried applying to be an intern at her production company figuring that ‘free’ was labor that anyone could afford and that if I could just get in the door as a coffee fetcher they’d soon realize they’d found the best coffee fetcher in town. (My query received no response and I got another internship before I could follow up- in the meantime I branched out into the restocking of mini fridges and even made headway into the competitive world of mail distribution… so, you know, I’ve got skills now).

Learning that she was going to be a commencement speaker seemed like one of those golden opportunities that people talk about. It also presented some interesting problems, like how to make an impression among hundreds of faces at a graduation while rendered invisible by lack of a cap and gown? How to find a way to cross paths with someone who was likely to be pretty popular for people to want to talk to? Most importantly- and most worrying: How to not freeze up and chicken out by the approach itself?

So I did what I did best: I made a plan. First, I told anybody who would listen how excited I was to hear her speak so that if I did chicken out I’d be held accountable. Next I wrote a thank you note: it was easy because I meant it and because thank you notes are kinda in my wheelhouse. And lastly I told the Curmudgeonly Lion about it so that he could help me figure out how to put the plan in motion.

We snuck out of the theatre while the doctoral candidates were being hooded and hung out in the lobby near the door that seemed like the most likely place for the recessing faculty and VIPs to exit. I got the thank you note out. I had it in hand. The recessional played (Raiders March, because this is film school) and the Dean appeared at the head of the column of faculty with the keynote speakers right behind her.

Give her the note! How’s your chance!” hissed the Curmudgeonly Lion like a human conscience at my shoulder.

But before I could, the Dean bore left and headed across the lobby towards the door marked- deceptively- “Restrooms”. The faculty and speakers followed. Opportunity lost.

Disappointed, we headed outside before the crowd caught up to us. Standing on the corner it occurred to us that all the production related vehicles and trailers were parked alongside the building. Maybe it would be worth hanging out by the Stage Door? You know, like people sometimes do.

We walked down the sidewalk at a leisurely pace, just to see what we could see. The production trailer turned out to be a mobile tech both full of video displays. Beyond that was a generator, a town car, and a bunch of construction. Drat. No luck.

Maybe that’s their car,” The Curmudgeonly Lion said of the town car. It certainly seemed possible. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to wait long enough for things to get awkward- it might just have easily been a car for Paul Feig or for the Dean.

Reluctantly, we turned to go back.

Oh yeah, and then Robert Downey Jr walked out the door. And Susan Downey, accompanied by the Dean, again- a woman who only seems diminutive from far away: up close she has Presence with a capital P and that presence was between me and my goal.

Oh well,” I thought, completely intimidated, “The Plan didn’t account for that. I wouldn’t want to seem pushy or rude- is it rude to step in front of the Dean? Probably. At least impolite- I wouldn’t want impolite to be part of my first impression… Guess that’s all I can do. Too bad.”

I’d already turned away, but the Curmudgeonly Lion wasn’t ready to let me give up. “Now’s your chance! It’s not too late. Just go up and hand her the card!”

I couldn’t do it. I was frozen. Opportunity was slipping away right in front of my eyes and I couldn’t move. The Curmudgeonly Lion grabbed my arm and walked over with me.

“Mrs Downey!” he said, to get her attention.

She turned. The spell broke.

“Thank you for speaking.” I said ( glad that I’d written out my thoughts already) “You’re an inspiration.”

I held out the thank you card, hoping that wasn’t weird, hoping there wasn’t an unwritten/unspoken prohibition against Handing Things To Commencement Speakers Who Are Big Successes. Hoping that I hadn’t misspelled anything…
But if there was a rule that I didn’t know about then she was gracious enough to take the envelope anyway, and we made or retreat to the reception where there was a promise of food.

I couldn’t have done it without the Curmudgeonly Lion. Not in an abstract way, in an actual I-would-freeze-up-in-the-face-of-opportunity way. For all my talent and hard work I still need someone to push me into doing the things that I want to do but that scare me. Together we emerged victorious, but I was forged to realize that it wasn’t because I was brilliant, but because we were a team. I’m just glad that I’ve found that person who balances me out.

So happy graduation to the “other” graduate- who might not have had a cap or gown, but who was the reason why I made it through the program and deserves his share of credit.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on May 14, 2016.

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