Sunday, 6 December 2015

Winter Graduation 2015: Not quite a New York stage, but a good show anyway

It was 1994 when I first went to New York. W and I were going there for a romantic Valentine’s Day celebration. It was a trip that left me with some great memories. I remember it being a warm Spring, and it was possible to eat ice cream in Central Park. The sunshine made sightseeing more enjoyable. One of the many things I had on my sightseeing ‘bucket list’ was visiting the Statue of Liberty. Having flown around it in a helicopter I had found out it was possible to go inside the statue and climb the 354 steps to the top and view New York through a window set in the crown.

These days tourists visiting the crown do so via a central stair-well constructed and opened to the public in 2009. However, back in 1994 tourists climbed up the inside using one way stairs which wound their way around the inside. I recall being behind someone who became increasingly claustrophobic and wanting to go back the way she had come – an impossible task. Once the small platform in the crown was reached it was only possible to stand and look at the view through an incredibly scratched and dirty window for just a few seconds, before you were hurried on to start your descent.  

Despite returning to New York on many occasions since then, I have never revisited the Statue of Liberty after that first visit. Its possible that these days the experience is much better, but for me, as one of my ‘bucket list’ experiences, it wasn't a good one! It was the triumph of experience over expectation. 

I’m not sure why this particular New York memory came to mind other than last week I found our Winter Graduation ceremonies rather more a triumph of hope over my experience. The University re-introduced a Winter Graduation last year after only having a Summer Graduation for a large number of years. I wasn't a fan of the idea, but of course once the decision was taken, I was more than happy to do my bit in making it a celebration. However as hard as I try, it’s difficult not compare the 2 Graduation ceremonies.

The Summer Graduation is held at the contemporary Lowry Theatre located at Salford Quays, next door to Media City. This is a grand venue and one set up and well used to facilitating such an event. In contrast, Maxwell Hall (located on the main campus site and built in 1960) is well past is former glory. In the mid 1980s it was used as a concert venue for groups such as the Smiths, the Fall, Icicle Works and New Order. The Maxwell Hall stage is tiny in comparison to the one at Lowry which often accommodates 90+ of my colleagues at each Summer graduation ceremony, and most years we have at least 2 ceremonies.

The attendance of my colleagues at each ceremony is important for many different reasons. They will have worked with the students for 2 or 3 years, offering them opportunities to learn and grow. I think that being able to share and celebrate each student’s success is both a form of closure and a symbolic act of acknowledgment in witnessing what might be called a rite of passage from ‘graduand to graduate’. Of course my academic colleagues are only part of the celebration. Parents, husband, wives, partners, children and friends have their part to play as well in creating the atmosphere of a special occasion. Did this happen last Tuesday? I hope so. 

Our School took part in the first ceremony, but it was only a brief encounter. Ceremony 2 was all ours. We processed in all our fine robes, to triumphal music. Maxwell Hall was literally full to the brim. Our Chancellor, Jackie Kay warmed the congregation up with her humorous stories and sheer joyful presence. As the students were presented for their various awards there were whoops, cheers, and much laughter and clapping. I even got through the names without too much trouble.  Nobody fell off the stage or tripped up or down the stairs. Everyone who should have been there was there, well with the exception of many of my colleagues who couldn't  get a seat on the stage that is.  So I am not sure why, after the ceremonies I was left feeling like I did on that first visit to the Statue of Liberty.

Maybe I am just slowly turning into a grumpy old man (W might say not so slowly) – or maybe it’s because my ‘pleasure’ gene is starting to fade. The pleasure gene, often referred to a Taq1A plays a role in processing dopamine, which is the hormone in the brain associated with pleasure and reward. It is a hormone that is released when people smoke. In research undertaken in Zhejiang University, China and published last week, it was reported that people (smokers) will have with slight variations of this gene. These variations will either make it easy to give up smoking or next to impossible to do so. So once started, they are likely to remain as lifelong smokers, with all that might entail. I gave up smoking a long time ago, so its probably just that I am turning into a grumpy old man. Still, even if this is the case, I still look forward to going back to New York at some stage and to attending the next graduation ceremony, which fortunately for me, will be in the Summer and at the Lowry!