When I first thought about attending the commencement ceremony, my instinct was: “Why the fuck would I do that?” When I asked my friends, the general consensus was: “I mean, it’s not like it’s Columbia…it’s an MFA from CCNY. Like, WTF.” It’s common knowledge that getting an MFA at City College is as hard as hailing a gypsy cab on 137th and Amsterdam. If you can fill the application out correctly, you’re in like Flynn. Professors give out As like they’re postcard ads for cellphone stores. Fluent English is not mandatory.
An MFA, after all, is the tramp stamp of Master’s Degrees. Sometimes it’s cheap, sometimes it’s expensive, you spend a lot of time thinking about getting it and then once you get it, you totally forget about it. Other people who don’t have one think it’s cool initially, but those who do also have ambivalent feelings about it. A tramp stamp is something you get for decoration.
Yet this morning, I found myself, in cap, gown, and MFA hood, on the roof of the science building. In large part, my decision was sartorial: How could I pass up an opportunity to dress like Esteemed Professor McGonagall in the throes of late spring?
When the Dean of Arts and Sciences spoke about Maya Angelou this morning at the CCNY Commencement, he said something to the effect of: “When I learned this morning that Maya Angelou had passed away…” I don’t know how that thought ended because the student body immediately started stage-whispering in a derisive way: “Doesn’t he CHECK the NEWS?”
See, the majority of the web had killed Maya Angelou last night, Wednesday night, although she did not actually pass away until this morning. I knew this because my Facebook feed was inundated with quotes of hers, which I found very strange. A lot of my friends are non-students, which means that they’d never post a quote from an author, preferring to share memes and BuzzFeed articles. A lot of my friends are most definitely students, which means they’d never post a quote from such a widely-liked artist, preferring to share an overly-adjectived Memoirette of the Day, or lines from a Siri Hustvedt novel. Unless said author has died, in which case the first order of business is to google “maya angelo (sic) quotes” and slap that as a status update to show that we’re compassionate, we’re intellectual, and, most of all, we’re trending.
We use a number sign to both absolve guilt and promote our awareness by using hashtags like #SaveOurGirls (girls most of us could truly not care less about on a daily basis if we tried) and #YesAllWomen (which presumes that women getting yelled at by construction workers in Midtown is as detrimental as gang rapes in the hood of Baltimore). The only logical way, then, to address the loss of a major literary icon is to post a ten-word quote from her million-word canon. The tragedy, according to the class of 2014, then, was not the loss of a writer and activist who dramatically changed the cultural landscape, but rather the fact that the Dean of Arts and Sciences hadn’t checked worldstarhiphop.com.
But what’s the other option? Not acknowledging her death? Negative. I started to wonder: What did people do in the past? They took to the streets and had memorial gatherings, they talked over meals, they wrote in their diaries. But wait: There was definitely an influx of jerks who wouldn’t be able to identify “Thriller” from the first two chords wearing one glove when Michael Jackson died. I’m sure a good portion of the pseudo-punks who cried for Sid Vicious when he OD’d didn’t know his mom bought him the fatal heroin. There’s nothing exclusively millennial about wanting to be a part of something, even if you only knew about it peripherally. While hashtags and quote banks range from irritating to offensive, belonging to something is an integral part of the human experience. Even in a time where we’re stuck between the crossed lines of the hashtag and reality, drowning in irony and making everything viral, we still need to connect.
What did I have to do at 9 o clock this Thursday that was more important than taking two hours to acknowledge two and a half years of my life that were spent in pursuit of self-improvement, or opening my mind, of meeting other people who are also unwilling to be complacent and ignorant? Nothing, really. Have we no self-worth?
I feel like the proliferation of possibilities causes us to feel inferior about the things we are, in fact, choosing to do; we concentrate on the things we’ve not done in deciding to do other things, and in order to mask our fear that we’re not making the correct choices, we act blasé about these large life events.
This is why I ultimately decided to go to my graduation. Because if you’re not going to your own graduation, then what exactly are you holding out for? Who else is going to respect the time and energy you’ve put into something? How many times are you actually going to be able to celebrate an accomplishment? Let me tell you: There’s no parade for garnering SEO hits; there’s no award ceremony for pooling the highest amount of tips on a Saturday night. From what I’ve seen, life is a whole lot of hard work that goes mostly unrecognized. Besides weddings and graduations and maybe a promotion or two, the only time you’re going to get that dressed up and celebrate your achievements is your funeral, and I have this sneaking suspicion that you won’t be as terrestrially involved in that party as you’d like.
Did I spend hours in the library? No. To be honest, I didn’t even go in there until my fourth semester. Did I whip off certain papers with the aid of certain uppers mere hours before they were due after knowing about them for weeks? Did I cut class because I was too hungover and exhausted from working doubles and partying triples? Did I spend entire lit classes texting my friends across from me about how everyone else in the class was an idiot? Yes, yes, yes. But at the same time, I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages, some good, most bad, that I’d been wanting and needing to write for a very long time. I translated chapters of Spanish and French novels into English, finished writing a play, and started writing multiple novels. I studied experimental women’s poetry, for god’s sakes.
I don’t think that getting an MFA makes anyone a better writer. In fact, I’d venture to say that workshops have a tendency towards groupthink and tradition, and generally reject experimental writing. I think that some people can be aided with editing, and can improve their ability to read critically, but as far as I’m concerned, raw talent is raw talent and otherwise you’re kind of fucked. Artistically speaking. What I do think an MFA does is make people aware that there’s a way to live that’s not focused solely on money, marriage, and me, me, me, as in My Small World, the things that are happening In This Moment Here. There is history and literature, the search for answers, and the simple awareness that, in a sea of acronyms and dotcoms and virtual reality, there are indeed people who haven’t yet drowned.
So on that note, congratulations to everyone who did or didn’t make it to their graduation this year. This is a cause for celebration. I’m heading downtown to get (another) tramp stamp.