I hope they say my name right, you think as you adjust the hot, polyester bag draped over your shoulders. You crane your neck to glance around the crowded auditorium.
Rows and rows of faces you don’t recognize gaze back at you. You see flashes of colors, different voices of expression and gestures of love. Slowly, you peel your eyes over each person. No, no, no you think to yourself as your eyes brush past unrecognized faces. Heart hammering, you hesitate at last.
I think that’s them, you debate as you squint in the direction of a lady with hair similar to your mother’s. That has to be them. You turn back toward the front, slightly comforted, and take a step forward. You’re sort of regretting those last few shots you took last night as the stairs for the stage come into view. Still, it’s nice to know you went out with a bang. I’m glad I’m wearing my wedges, you decide, as you watch a girl wobble on her stilettos as she shakes the hand of some faculty member.
Only…seven more people to go. You count the bodies ahead of you, wondering if you recognize any of them. Pretty sure that girl was in one of my classes. You run your tongue across your teeth, making sure none of the bagel you had is stuck in there.
Six to go. You glance down at your hands, thankful that your manicure survived your last blackout of college.
Five now, you think, as yet another name is called out into the sea of people.
You smooth the wrinkles in your gown. Totally should have steamed it like your mom told you to. Four more. You grab a handful of freshly curled hair and put it on both shoulders. Three left. Your best friend grabs your hand from behind and gives it an excited, slightly sweaty squeeze. Only two left. You take a deep, shaky breath as you step up the last stair and stand on the edge of the stage. Only one more.
“Is this how it’s pronounced?” The woman at the microphone whispers, as she muttered the phonetic spelling of your name in your ear.
You nod mutely, remembering for a second filling out that card a few days ago, laughing with your friends as you tried to figure out how to make sure they said your name properly. The woman smiles down at you and puts the mic back up to her lips. This is it.
You hear your name.
You step forward.
Someone is shouting in the audience. That sounds like your brother. It has to be your brother.
You extended your hand. Yes, thank you thank you. Shake. Shake.
You take the thick, leather booklet and pause for a photograph.
Step down, step down, step down.
And you’re done. You follow the line of other just-graduated students back to your seats and wait as everyone else gets their makeshift diplomas (the real one, you discover upon opening the folder, will be sent to you at a later date) and take a quick Snapchat of the giant room. Someone stands up and says a few words. Everyone is told to turn their tassels over. The music plays. You walk it. It’s over.
You’re a graduate.
After the pictures and the poses, the dinners and the parties, the dust finally settles. Maybe it’s a few days or maybe it’s a week, but eventually the cap gets put on the shelf, the real diploma comes in, the relatives go back home, the thank you notes are sent and you’re left with the one strange, scary, inevitable question you’ve been putting off:
Sure, you might stay in your college town for another few months. Your lease isn’t up until August and you have a part-time job you want to finish up. Or maybe you’re traveling — you’re going to see the world before you “settle down.” Maybe you got an internship or hell, maybe you got a “real” job, and you’re going to jump headfirst into your professional career. You might be packing up and moving home or maybe you’re just trying to get through to tomorrow because tomorrow? You’re going to figure it all out.
So what happens, what really happens, after you graduate?
Well, a lot. Everything, to be more specific.
You’re going to feel it all. You’re going to feel excited about the changes, and you’re going to feel sad about the goodbyes. You’ll miss the college bars and the comfortable parts of your campus that you grew to love. You’ll miss who you were at that time, because now? You’re not exactly sure who you’re supposed to be. But as you flounder around, you’ll adapt. You’ll distance yourself a bit because you don’t really have a choice. Even when you visit, even if you still live next to the school, it’s different now. It’s changed. You’ve changed.
You’ll apply and you’ll apply and you’ll apply for your dream job. You have a degree, why is it so hard? You’ll cry. You might even cry a lot. You’ll keep that shitty waitressing job or maybe you’ll pick up a few extra nanny shifts. Chances are, you’ll feel pretty lost. And worst than that? All of your friends, it seems, are doing better than you. They’re moving to cool places or getting a ring on their fingers or just having it more together. You won’t have enough money and you can’t pay all of your bills. Your parents kick you off of the phone plan or you have to choose between drinks with friends and your car payment.
And all you’ll want is to go back to a simpler time when Thirsty Thursday was a thing, and being at work before 9 a.m. wasn’t.
So what will you do? You’ll keep pushing through. And it will be hard. And you’ll think that this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. It was supposed to be different for you. But you’ll punch your time card and you’ll keep applying for your dream job and you’ll stay in touch with the people you love and distance yourself from those you don’t. You’ll get frustrated with everyone for having a better life than yours and you’ll dream of being able to afford your dream apartment, in your dream city, while having your dream life.
So you go to sleep a little earlier or you’ll drink a little less or you’ll buy real curtains and you keep going. And one day? It just sort of clicks. You make new friends or you strengthen the relationships with the ones you have. You get a job that you’re interested or find a passion you never knew you had. The alarm going off in the morning isn’t as shocking, and crawling into bed before 1 a.m. isn’t so weird. You look forward to happy hours and you switch from liquor to wine on the weeknights.
And one day, without even realizing it, you’re an adult.
And it wasn’t because you went on the Instagram-worthy trip to Europe after graduation, or because you moved to New York and landed that PR job. It was because of the little things. The snaps from your best friend, who moved across the country with her boyfriend or the after work dinners with co-workers who you’re starting to call friends. And even though the confusion and the stress don’t stop (just wait for the wedding era to start), you learn how to handle it a little better. You learn how to keep going. To keep stepping forward whenever your name is called.
Don’t worry, graduates. You got this..
Image via Mary Ashlynn Photography