Americans seem to love ceremony, specifically the pomp and circumstance of some guy stood at a plinth invoking the future through breathy application of adjectives so that every heart doth swell with emproudenment and we all do be honourized. I lived in England from my birth in 1965 to jumping ship in 2011, and I probably attended about three, maybe four ceremonies in the entire time. Here it seems like there's something every other week, which is ironic given that the point of America was supposedly so we could get away from all those fucking Brits with their stupid wigs and their hereditary royalty and their never-ending speechifying; or a reluctance to pay tax on one's PG Tips, depending on who you've been listening to.
Here I am at another one, because Raphael has graduated from high school, or possibly from Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering, which is the name projected at the back of the stage behind the attendant row of teachers, professors, educators, and related boffins. Raphael's mother is amongst those sat to attention on the stage, wearing her gown and mortar board like the rest, and I know for a fact that she teaches at a high school so I suppose that's what the Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering must be. I don't really understand how it works, beyond that Raphael is my wife's cousin, and he's finished something or other, and that's why we're here.
Here is the Tobin Center in downtown San Antonio, which isn't the Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering, but is where they're having the ceremony contrary to my conventionally English expectations and assumptions. We arrive at seven and are directed up to the fourth floor, to some high balcony full of babies, or specifically persons with babies. One might assume that a long, droning public ceremony might not be such a great place to bring children under one year of age, but it's not like anyone had a choice, not since the 1997 constitutional amendment banning both babysitting and the practice of leaving your screaming infant with a relative - apparently. The baby behind us begins to howl, so we change places. After another minute we realise that now directly behind us is another vocally demonstrative infant, and the little guy in the row directly in front of us has decided to accept the challenge.
One of the ceremonies I attended back in England was my father's second wedding; two were graduation ceremonies at Maidstone College of Art; and I think there was something else but I can't remember what it was. The first Maidstone graduation ceremony was for the students of the year above mine. They had Laurie Taylor the radio presenter along as guest speaker. I had no idea who he was at the time, but his speech was very entertaining, even hilarious, and a good time was had by all. I seem to recall they'd had either Brian Eno or possibly Ralph Steadman doing the honours the year before, but unfortunately I missed that one. By the time it came to my year, all they could manage was some stammering corporate arse who, accustomed to public speaking as he wasn't, may as well have been reading a report on stocks and shares.
People say that fine art is useless, he stuttered in preamble to explaining how it wasn't because sometimes the managing director of ICI will notice the great expanse of wall behind the head office reception desk and decide that what it really needs is a big, blurry painting of nothing in particular, so hooray for us lot because we weren't useless after all. It was pretty depressing and as such a fitting conclusion to the three years I'd spent working towards that bit of paper which stood me in such good stead for my subsequent twenty-one years service with Royal Mail.
That was the only time I graduated. School was just a case of taking some exams and then not going to school any more, and it was the same with college and art foundation, roughly speaking. Here, on the other hand, they graduate regularly every summer. Well done - you've completed fourth grade, and you get a handshake and a certificate, and then you do it all over again next year, and the next, and the next, presumably until you arrive at the point at which Raphael now finds himself.
We can sort of see where he is if we stand and lean forward, somewhere within a bay of mortarboards lapping restlessly at the stage, but first there's the speechification to get through. A handful of educators tell us what a year it has been, and what an honour it is to be stood here upon the threshold of the future gazing across the frozen plains of destiny that shalt soon tremble beneath the hooves of this year's newly scholasticated flock as they go out unto the world to begin their lives knowing that they have only to dream and so mote it be. Each speech turns out to be only the long-winded introduction to yet another speaker with another variation on here we all are and be all you can be, and all working up to some old guy who is the head of something or other and may or may not be directly involved with Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering. We've been here over an hour listening to people we've never heard of reiterating the central premise of Jiminy Cricket's When You Wish upon a Star.
Who would have fucking thunk it, asks the star turn - admittedly not in those exact words - in preamble to explaining what an honour it is to be stood here upon the threshold of the future gazing across the frozen plains of destiny that shalt soon tremble beneath the hooves of this year's newly scholasticated flock as they go out unto the world to begin their lives knowing that they have only to dream and so mote it be; but being the star turn, he really takes it to the next level - as we say - with longer, ever more grandiose sentences, really working that thing into the ground as he segues into a valuable autobiographical life lesson complete with impersonations of his own daughter and a mime of what she looks like when she's on the phone. In summary the tale is of his kid, and how greatly she didst want to be a nurse, and she wanted to be a nurse a very, very lot, but alas, her grades were shit so she wasn't able to be a nurse; and then she studied really hard; and then behold for she was a nurse. It was something along those lines, and the saga took about forty minutes to unfold.
Eventually we get to the kids - a half hour or longer roll call of Hispanic surnames because the school or academy or whatever it's supposed to be is on the southside, several minutes worth of Rodriguez and Suarez at a time with the occasional incongruity of a lonely Johnson to keep it interesting. A steady stream of kids fly across the stage, pausing to grin, shake a hand and take a scroll before swiftly exiting stage left. The girls all seem to be wearing massive clunky platform heels. We cheer Raphael as we catch his name, even though we're not absolutely sure which one he is.
Each of these kids is carrying the future with them, we have been told, so no pressure or anything. From this point on, the only limits to what they will be able to do are those of imagination, and presumably also the laws of physics, and the fact that someone has to be a fucking janitor or a mailman or the guy who drives the garbage truck.
The whole thing is exhausting, and the level of motivational horseshit involved makes me feel sorry for the kids on what is, after all, quite a big day for them. Maybe one of their number will design the saucer which takes us to Mars, but surely just holding down a job and not being a complete fuck-up is at least as worthy? The value of a celebration should not be diminished by simply admitting that not everyone gets to be Superman, and we - meaning everyone - really need to start thinking about a realistic world which works, rather than aiming for Disneyland with knobs on and in doing so just making everything else worse through singularity and ultimate futility of purpose. Not everyone needs a medal.
One week later we eat burgers with Raphael and his family as a belated, more low-key celebration. He warmly shakes my hand with a vice-like grip and I recall that this baritone giant was just some kid the last time we met up close, and that it can't have been more than five years before.
'Well done,' I say, and I mean it.