Graduation is a big event in the life of students and their families. It’s also a big event for the people who work these ceremonies. Ken Szymanski recalls his time as a photographer’s assistant for graduation at UW-Eau Claire.
Like an old photograph, the events took time to develop.
I was an undergraduate working as an usher at yet another 1990s UW-Eau Claire commencement ceremony. The jobs were standard: don’t let anyone use this door, keep this aisle clear, don’t let people congregate here, etc. But before the ceremony started, they called an audible . The photographer’s assistant was sick. They asked me to take his place.
The photographer explained that he would take a picture of every student, with the brand new diploma, shaking hands with the chancellor on his or her way across the stage. He needed to ensure that the correct picture proof was mailed to the correct student.
Enter the photographer’s assistant.
Step one: Sit by the stage, discreetly.
Step two: As each graduate is called up, whisper the person’s name into a hand-held tape recorder, along with a quick physical description.
While condensing hundreds of individual’s physical descriptions in relentless five-second increments is challenging enough, UW-Eau Claire’s lack of diversity at the time made this even more difficult. Add the matching caps-and-gowns factor…and the photographer’s assistant job becomes the toughest in the gym.
My descriptions went like this: Robin Anderson…dark hair, glasses, somewhat short.
John Craker…male, shaggy bangs, white collar.
Jane Johnson, black hair, umm… gaudy necklace.
Trying to make each of these distinct after a few hundred became a challenge, as did avoiding negative descriptions, such as “goofy looking.”
Mark Smith…brown hair…medium height, average.
Richard Stien…ummm…standard average male, medium brown hair.
Jennifer Stertz …ummmm…ahh…female….I don’t know…. pass.
While to me they all started to blur together, the chancellor’s job was to make each one feel as if the whole ceremony has lead up to The Handshake.
Eye contact. Smile. Handshake. Click.
And the crowd, though they were asked to hold their applause until the end, started chipping away at the rule. After the first few dozen graduates crossed the stage in silence, someone cracked the Midwestern decorum: “Way to go Britzso!”
The crowd laughed. College security did nothing, which opened the door to the other revelers. A dozen students later: “You made it Josie!!!!”
Parents, grandparents, siblings waited for not just hours…but years…decades for these moments. They were bursting to acknowledge it. This is not just any graduate, parents thought. This is our son. Our daughter. Our story.
Someone rang a cowbell. Another family blew kazoos. A father without a filter yelled out, “ATAWAY BROOKIE-COOKIE!!!”
Eventually, those graduates will get jobs, get married, and have babies…babies that, in the hospital, all kind of look the same.
These babies will need ID tags on their wrists and ankles to avoid mix-ups.
That isn’t just any baby, each of those parents will think.
This one is special.
She’s going somewhere.
He stands out from the crowd.
Someday, these kids too, will walk across the stage, shake hands with Authority, and exit down the stairs and into the past.
But not before we take a picture. Rest assured, we’ll take lots and lots of pictures.