|This cake tasted as good as it looked.|
Friday, May 27, 2016
I live in a college town, so in addition to ordering mulch for the garden, hosing down the deck furniture and spraying beneficial nematodes on the lawn (which is a whole other blog post; trust me, you’ll want to know) the Rites of Spring include Graduation. Every. Single. Year. Think: Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day.
Don’t get me wrong: I love ceremony. I love pomp and circumstance, the gathering of friends and family to mark Major Life Milestones. Massive luncheons prepared by dining staff. Tents. Speeches. Oh, speeches. One group of fairly hilarious professors I know has come up with an entertaining way to endure those speeches … but I digress. And should not reveal their secrets.
Here’s the thing: graduations are wonderful, complicated, emotional affairs, which can be tremendously fun and painfully fraught. Things can go well … and things can go wrong. Seriously wrong. If I had one single piece of advice for the parent of a rising college graduate it’d be this: Don’t Get FERP’d.
As in Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a law affectionately known as FERPA.
FERPA figures prominently in my next novel, Wrecked. It’s the reason why the details of judicial proceedings on a campus are not made public. It’s the reason why you can’t see your students’ grades, or find out what courses they’ve registered for, or even pay their tuition bills online (!) unless they, the students, grant you access.
FERPA was enacted back in 1974. I know this because in 1978, the family who lived next door to us in Jersey got FERP’d.
They were a big family, five kids, and their oldest, I’ll call her Jill, was about to graduate from an out-of-state university. I was friends with Jill’s younger sister, “Jane,” and watched as the whole brood piled into their van and headed off for the festivities. When they returned, several days later, I dropped by to ask how it went.
“Terrible,” Jane said. “We never saw her.”
“Wow,” was my initial reaction. I knew it was a massive school, but when you couldn’t even find your grad … “It was that crowded?”
“No, she wasn’t there. She never graduated. She wasn’t on the program, she wasn’t in her room, and her friends won’t tell us where she went. Turns out she failed a couple of classes, didn’t qualify to graduate, and now she’s hiding from my dad.”
My 17-year old, goody-two-shoes self couldn’t quite take this in. I could understand delaying telling your parents the bad news: Mom and Dad: I washed out in chemistry. I’ll need to pick up those credits later. No graduation yet. This would be hard, possibly really hard if you didn’t have understanding parents. But the alternative? Withholding the info until they showed up and couldn’t find you, left to wander the campus, alive with celebrating hordes of happy families and cap-and-gown-clad 20-somethings? Brutal.
FERPA was most certainly not at fault here: Jill was. She should have put on her big girl pants and come clean with her family. But FERPA most definitely precluded any chance her suspecting parents might have had of discovering the truth on their own. If they had called the school and flat out asked: Is our daughter graduating? They would have been told, by law: We can’t tell you. Ask her.
I’m not exaggerating. This is truly how it works.
Anyway. My neighbors survived, as families do, and muddled on. I have no clue what pyrotechnics accompanied the eventual face-to-face between the errant non-grad and her parents, but in subsequent months/years I did see her come and go from that house and Jane told me her big sister eventually earned her degree. But the incident branded my future mother-of-a-grad self and informed what happened when my own son, known in this blog as The Dude (see earlier posts) was scheduled to Walk the Walk some 35 years later.
Scroll ahead: several weeks before The Dude’s college graduation. A pervasive unease disquiets me. I can’t shake it. I should be excited, right? Our clan is gathering, we’re planning fun cookouts with The Dude’s friends and their families, I have hotel reservations … why do I have this sense of dread?
Here’s what’s to know about The Dude: he’s delightful. He’s smart and funny and charming … and prone to skim the details. The fine print. What, me worry? is not exactly his mantra, but his lack of concern about certain things most definitely contributes to my worry. And one tiny, itsy, bitsy detail was haunting me: in his final spring semester, The Dude took three courses, instead of the usual four. I kept doing the math, and couldn’t shake my sense that this did not add up to a diploma.
“Mom,” The Dude assured me, “I’m fine. I earned other credits along the way. I met with my advisor and she said I’m all set.”
I think: Who is your advisor? What is her number? I want her to tell ME. The mother. One of the parents who has been paying the tuition.
Instead, I say: “Oh, that’s great. Thanks for handling that. Sorry to keep asking. You know me! Such a worrier.”
Things might have been okay at that point. But then, Facebook stepped in.
I won’t further lengthen this already long post by expostulating on the horrors of Facebook (let’s just say it’s the root of all social dysfunction) but in the weeks preceding The Dude’s Big Event a friend whose son was about to graduate from another college began “sharing” all their news. This “sharing” included photographs of the lovely embossed invitation his son’s college sent to parents.
We had not received a lovely embossed invitation. And god knows: we’d paid enough for one. In addition to that, we had received only one, ONE, email from The Dude’s college apropos to graduation. This had arrived many weeks earlier and basically said Check with your student to make sure they have met all the requirements for graduation. After that: radio silence. And this from a college known for a constant, virtual tidal wave of emails/messages/reminders about various events on campus.
I think: SOMETHING IS WRONG SOMETHING IS DEFINITELY WRONG HE’S NOT GRADUATING I WOULD HAVE GOTTEN A LOVELY EMBOSSED INVITATION AND EMAILS ABOUT GRADUATION HE’S NOT GRADUATING HE’S TOO DAMN CLUELESS TO EVEN KNOW IT
I say (to my husband): “You know, I’m going to email his class dean and find out how we can confirm that he’s all set.” “Go for it,” the spouse said. Note: the spouse was not one bit worried.
You can imagine what followed. I emailed said dean, who replied, FERPA-like: “We are unable to confirm your student’s status toward meeting his graduation requirements. Please confer with your student.” Or something to that effect. I didn’t save the actual email. Suffice to say: I was FERP’d.
I think: WTF???? I KNEW IT I KNEW IT HE’S NOT GRADUATING OMG IT’S JILL FROM JERSEY ALL OVER AGAIN OMG!!!!!
I say (to the spouse): “I don’t have a good feeling about this. It’s time to call The Dude.” The spouse nods. He knows me.
One Ringy Dingy. Two Ringy Dingies. I reach voicemail.
I think: HE’S NOT PICKING UP HE’S EITHER HALFWAY TO LAS VEGAS WHERE HE’S HOPING TO HIDE FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE OR HE’S CLUELESSLY GOING ABOUT HIS BUSINESS NOT REALIZING HE’S NOT GRADUATING OMG!!
Several hours later, a text from The Dude: What’s up?
I called. I dumped. All the emotions. About the FERPA Nazi in the dean’s office, the lovely embossed invitation my friend was sharing on Facebook, maybe even Jill and New Jersey. After exhausting myself, utterly, I waited.
“Oh,” The Dude finally said, chastened. “I’m sorry. They sent those invitations to us weeks ago. Did you want them? They’re sitting on my desk ….”
I think: OH. MY. GOD.
I say: “Oh, honey, for sure. Please don’t throw them out.”
The Dude: “Want me to put them in the mail to you?”
I say: “Thanks, that would be great.”
The call ends, and, adrenaline spent, I collapse in a puddle on my kitchen floor.
Several weeks later, he graduated, in a bright red robe, beneath a brilliant sun, surrounded by wonderful friends. It was a fine day, although not the culminating moment. For me, that happened the day before commencement, when the grads picked up their actual diplomas at some small office window. He allowed me to photograph the event:
Cars with plates “from away” are pouring into our small town even as I type this, and I wonder what joy, what anxieties, what anticipation and concerns ride in each of those vehicles. We’ll wander, as we do every year, among the families gathered on the campus, cheer on friends and students we know and colleagues who have taught them, listen to those inevitable speeches (oh, those speeches!) then head home.
Because it’s spring, after all, and there are weeds to pull and always a lawn to mow.