Yesterday was the Orff Course Level III graduation. After it was over, I said my goodbyes, rushed off to a farewell staff lunch and then the three-hour drive back to San Francisco. Arrive at 6:30, got a quick haircut (10 minutes!), re-packed, went to the airport and took off to Portland, Oregon and arrived at my daughter’s house at 12:30 in the morning. Woken up the next morning by my grandson Malik and off in the car for an hour drive to see my son-in-law’s graduation from three years of Occupational Therapy School. Two graduation ceremonies in the past 24 hours. And the differences between them worthy of comment.
Ronnie’s graduation was the traditional pomp and circumstance (including that song!). There were caps and gowns, a Scottish bagpipe procession, a Gonfalon flag with the institutional insignia, the academic mace carried by the President of the University— all iconic paraphernalia and rituals dating back as far as Medieval times. There is a significant moment of moving the cap tassel from the right to the left, the handshake with the President and draping of a scarf, the walk across the stage to cheering friends and family. The dominant facial expression is a smile and the whole atmosphere is charged with happiness. These people have worked hard and now are done with their studies and ready to enter the workplace and apply their knowledge. I suspect that there is a big exhale of relief—no more late night studying, no more tests, no more hoops to jump through and no sense whatsoever of “I’m going to miss all that!” On the contrary, these were the less-than-fun but necessary knowledges to be absorbed, the obstacles between on-the-way and a future career to be surmounted, the difficulties in the moment to be endured with promise of some future pay off. So again, mostly that satisfying joyful exhale of relief—“I’m done!!”
All of this is well and good and the way things go in the first stage of life— the building of the ego, the strengthening of the will, the discipline of work, the commitment to earning the money to pay all expenses, to feed and nurture a family (optional), to put yourself on the track of a career.
Level III Orff graduation was a very different kind of affair. The “procession” was the graduates bowing down and going through a tunnel of Level I and II teachers singing a Somagwaza, a South African song traditionally welcoming back the youth from their initiation ceremonies. The 30 of them then face the others and receive their diplomas one at a time from me. But instead of a handshake, we hug—strongly— and I say a word about each to try to capture some quality of character with the teachers playing a live version of Orff’s Streetsong composition. I then say some words and this year they went something like this:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to witness the marriage of these people with the work they were born for. For many, coming to their first Orff workshop was like entering a room and seeing someone and immediately knowing, “That’s the person (work) I’m going to marry.” And so this whole thing began with romance, a falling in love and they stuck with it and found it was a good choice and here they are ready to commit to a lifetime “in sickness (holding hands with the kids in the dance who just blew his nose) and in health, for richer or for poorer (the latter: they’re music teachers), for better (“Can we do that again?”) or worse (“I hate this song!”), to love and to cherish, till death do them part… or they decide they liked the Kodaly Method better." So yes, this ceremony is a marriage and a commitment to get through the choosing instruments battles and who will drive the kids to the concert and who will bake cookies for the bake sale.
But it’s also a funeral, a death of the way these folks used to teach and continued to teach even when it didn’t work or made themselves or the kids miserable. It’s a burying of “I have to do it this way because that’s the way it was done to me,” of “I have to do it the way the school board tells me to,” even of “I have to do it the way my Level III teachers said I had to.” It’s also a farewell to the “I can’t” voice— “I can’t play without sheet music, I can’t improvise, I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t create imaginative classes, I can’t figure out how to like my students.” And so on.
And it’s also a birth. Hence our little ritual of coming through the birth canal of singing people, born into a new day where work is play and play is fun and fun leads to understanding and understanding leads to deeper expression and expression awakens emotion and emotion connects body, mind and soul. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for these 30 beautiful souls completing this stage of the journey on the path that has no end. In short, not your typical graduation ceremony, but a blend of a wedding, a funeral and a birth.
And so this graduation was a different kind of affair, an initiation into the life of the soul following a pedagogy of love. It’s a journey following a calling more than a career. It’s a way to build a future life not merely paying the rent, but giving coin to the soul’s deep questions.
And as such, there were more tears than smiles, a great sorrow that six weeks of joyful play, deep community, intense emotion and extraordinary connection had to come to an end knowing that there are few places in the world that welcome them. This work was about diminishing the ego to reveal the larger Self, about growing smaller back to one’s childlike self and a growing larger to one’s emerging Self. Of course, there’s a sense of purpose accomplished and justifiable pride in such accomplishment, the feeling of “passing” an initiation where the right questions are valued more than the right answers, but mostly, instead of the euphoric “I’m done!!!”, there’s the sobering “I’m done? No!!! I want more!!”
At the end of the graduation, all three levels spiral into a circle singing the beautiful canon “in living fully, one finds peace…” and this never fails to elicit some tears. But this year, all three parts were flowing and suddenly, the entire first section of the canon, mostly teachers and Level III students, seemed to stop singing. When I looked up to see what happened, I saw that almost every single person was weeping. I mean the kind of weeping that is so deep that you look bad. And since it’s impossible to weep and sing, the song was suffering.
But the people were not. They were fulfilling the promise and purpose of the ceremony. At the other graduation, the President’s voice caught for a moment and she said, “I apologize. Please forgive me. I sometimes get a little emotional at these things.” But in the Orff graduation, the only apology would be, “Please forgive me that I’m not crying.”
So there you have it. To paraphrase Robert Frost:
Two graduations diverged in a troubled world.
And I took the one less travelled.
And that has made all the difference.