"Pomp and Circumstance." Graduation simply wouldn't be graduation without it. At least I hope that's still the case because, trite or last-century as it may be, the grand sweep of that music still moves me right down to my toes.
Actually, the music we think of as "Pomp and Circumstance" is only one section, "Land of Hope and Glory," from the first of six "Pomp and Circumstance" marches written at the beginning of the 20th Century by British composer Sir Edward Elgar. It was first used as a graduation recessional at Yale in 1905, and since then hundreds of thousands of graduates have done their best to keep their mortarboards level and move at a pace appropriate to its stirring dignity.
It would be fun sometime to hear the entire suite of marches at a concert, though during the "Land of Hope and Glory" section it is probable that a large portion of the audience would be irresistibly driven to rise from their seats and march solemnly toward the stage in alphabetical order.
Maybe my emotional reaction to "Pomp and Circumstance" stems from my own high school graduation, though I don't consciously remember the music. What I do remember is processing in, seventy-something of us, two by two, from the back of the city auditorium and down the center aisle through the rows of seats crammed with relatives and friends.
Just as we had rehearsed, when we reached the front each pair separated to file in opposite directions and take our places, standing in front of the seats that were reserved for us. Being an "S," I was toward the end of the pack, and my assigned seat happened to be at the aisle end of the row. I reached the designated point, turned toward the row of chairs—and realized I didn't have one. Someone had counted wrong, or someone in the crowded auditorium had filched a chair.
Behind me, the rest of the graduates filed into the last row. Up on the stage, the minister began his invocation. Standing with my head dutifully bowed just enough so my mortarboard wouldn't slide off, I was quietly panicking. As soon as he finished, I knew he was going to say, "Please be seated," and everyone would. Everyone except me, who would be left the lone graduate standing, the humiliated focus of hundreds of eyes.
Some seniors, self-confident class president types or debate champions or drama club lovers of the spotlight, might have been able to pass such an incident off with élan or even enjoy the attention. I was not one of those students.
Before the pastor got to the end of his invocation, though, I felt something nudge the back of my robe. Miraculously, a chair had appeared behind me. When we were told to be seated, and in uneven blue-robed unanimity we sat, I had never been so grateful to settle onto a hard metal folding chair.
After the ceremony, I learned that a neighbor, the father of one of my classmates, had noticed my predicament from his seat near the aisle a few rows behind the graduates. During the prayer, this burly, six-foot-plus man had sneaked forward with his own chair and placed it behind me. Knowing him, he gave the audience a big grin as he went to stand in the back of the room.
I hope I thanked him properly. As inarticulate and shy as I was at the time, I probably wasn't able to let him know how much his embarrassment-sparing gesture meant to me. And now, even though I've remembered it with gratitude for all these years, he's gone and it's a decade too late to tell him in person.
Thank you, Lyle. Bless your kindness and your quickness. I think about you every time I hear "Pomp and Circumstance."