One hundred and twenty two is the atomic number of unbibium. It’s also the greatest number of years a human is documented to have ever lived, the number an Austrian dials when he burns down his home making grilled cheese, and the number of times commencement has been held at Goucher. Or, rather, it will be in a few weeks’ time.
I’m no good at commencements. Never have been. They’ve been a constant train of ill fortunate since kindergarten graduation in 1996. I forgot the lyrics to the Forest Hill Elementary Alma Mater song, you see, and panicked. So I started singing “Hungry Like the Wolf” instead (it was the only song I had memorized; it still probably is), much to the embarrassment of everyone, not least of all to those parents in the audience who were members of the local chapter of the Official Duran Duran Fan Club.
Full steam ahead still went the train at high school graduation. My name was called, I ascended the stairs, took my diploma, and shook the principle’s hand. I could not figure out why, as I continued to shake his hand, his teeth were gnarled in a sort of vengeful smile. Baffled, I continued to shake his hand in hopes of sorting the thing out. I finally gave it up and exited the stage. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him slightly limping, and only then did I realize I had been standing on his foot.
Goucher’s 122nd Commencement will most likely see a similar unfolding of events. I predict the biggest obstacle will this time be the gowns. Sweltering heat is sure to be with us that day, and the gowns won’t help matters: I’ll be fidgeting in my chair, removing my cap to scratch my itchy head, and discreetly wiping away the sweat from my armpits. Any one of these could result in someone losing an eye. I tell you, I really don’t think the thing would be so severe if it weren’t for the gowns. Aside from making me itchy and sweaty, wearing a gown gives me the unfulfilling idea that I’m Mr. Chips, and that isn’t healthy for anyone.
The first class to graduate from Goucher—in June of 1892—nearly pulled off the remarkable feat of escaping the gowns. I don’t mean they discarded them and strutted around in the nude, or anything. I mean, they almost didn’t have to wear them.
The caps and gowns were ordered from a local clothing firm. As graduation neared, they remained undelivered. Yet, snatching misfortunate from the jaws of luck, the firm delivered them on the day of graduation. Dean Van Meter discovered them as the graduates—all five of them—were already in procession to the ceremony at the church. Van Meter nabbed both the box and, just as they had entered the church doors, the graduates. He hauled all into a small side room, and distributed the garments. All were quickly dressed, then spit out to get their diplomas.
Those fist diplomas would have measured thirteen by sixteen inches in size and been made of parchment. As Anna Heubeck notes, perhaps with a slight sigh of relief, the wording “was to be in English.” The graduates did not as today receive their diplomas alphabetically. Rather, it was decided to present them in the order of their matriculation. So it was that Harriet Stratton Ellis was the first person to ever properly become a graduate of Goucher College.
President Goucher, making his remarks at the event, said the occasion marked for the college “the beginning of years.” But it marks the beginning of years for students, too. Though these years (and this history column) are at their end, mine are just beginning.
Special thanks to Marilyn Warshawsky for sharing her knowledge of Goucher with me whenever I’d write myself into a corner without knowing the facts necessary to get out.