I have a long history with commencement (aka graduation) ceremonies.
This is because I used to play saxophone in the marching bands for both my high school and university. At least once a year, we’d perform ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ over and over while the seniors walked to receive their diplomas in the graduation ceremony. So I got a great feeling when UC Davis asked me if we would be interested in assisting their speakers at commencement.
One thing to understand is that they have a lot of schools within their University… so the Schools of Business, Law, Agriculture and so on, each had their individual commencement exercises. The people involved with the ceremony are all great—very focused and dedicated to making the event memorable for the students, their families, and the faculty. We talked over the phone initially, outlining their needs and discussing dates. Months later I drove up to work on the first rehearsal, just a day before the commencement. We set up in their massive gymnasium. I ran cables from my workstation up to the lectern. It’s about a hundred foot run of three cables: power, signal and also a control cable for the robotic TeleStepper.
With such a variety of heights for the speakers, the TeleStepper was mandatory.
It was very important to the client that the event be smooth for all parties, so it meant no stopping to adjust the height of the glass each between commencement speeches, as this would interfere with the overall flow. Our TeleStepper travels a 24″ range with presets, so that I can learn and then match the speakers’ heights quietly and discreetly. For the rehearsal, I met with the Chancellor, Provost, the speaking Deans, students and the Special Events staff. The culmination of working together over the past years with this group was apparent. We worked one on one for a good part of the afternoon, training each person and editing their speeches.
What happened during graduation was unexpected.
It started off as you might imagine… parents, guardians and families had been filling the cavernous gym over the past hour, murmuring loudly over the band who was performing the graduation classics. But when the students finally entered the building, it was like a wave of energy swept through the place. Parents were calling out to their kids, shouting, even dialing their cell phones, in order to get their attention for a wave, a smile and a photo.
It was a little like those documentary films of penguin families finding each other across amid thousands of similar looking penguins.
People were justifiably emotional since this was such a big deal for them. I saw families of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Many clearly came from out of the country, adding to the pride and excitement. Families with younger siblings had a taste of what could be in their future as well. To be very honest, I got misty eyed too. And that was before the commencement speeches even started! There’s such a difference in rehearsing a speech in an empty room, and then the power of giving that same speech to a packed hall, with people giving back reactions, laughs, thoughtful silence and thunderous applause.
Mercifully, no one read the 500 names off the teleprompter so I had some down-time to soak in the mix of emotions.
Again, I can’t explain just how powerful the pride and link was between the families and their graduating seniors. Three hours of this left me very hopeful and very drained. It was a quiet drive back home to San Francisco. Happily, they have repeatedly asked us back, and we’ve since teleprompted other Universities’ ceremonies, like Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Gallaudet. This is now one of my favorite jobs.
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