Treading Lightly

issue 02 | summer 2014
Talk of the Walk - Summer 2014

I didn’t walk across the stage at my own college graduation. I didn’t even attend. I’m not entirely sure why, but I had this feeling that I would much rather hang out with my college buddies for our waning few hours as college kids, doing the things that college kids do, before the rest of life set in. When I shared this little tidbit of my past a few years ago with a Denison Magazine intern, a Denison student, she was appalled. Graduation, of course, was exactly what college kids did. And she was going to do it. With flair and sunglasses and an entire family watching from the crowd.

I should mention that I had a stellar college experience. I went to a school that allowed me to work closely with English faculty and writers. I was given opportunities— like working with a writer serving time in prison, coordinating speaker series, and more—that I might not have had the chance to pursue until grad school had I chosen a different university. I met some of my very best friends, including my husband, there. I had tough experiences that challenged the way I thought about the world. I made some of my greatest mistakes (believe me, there were doozies), and I achieved some of my best accomplishments during those four years. In many ways, Denison reminds me of my own alma mater.

But I wasn’t a big follower in those days, and tradition and ceremony seemed silly to me. I suppose I thought I was bucking the system, and in some ways, that made me kind of proud.

Which is why I find it so surprising that I carefully avoid stepping on Denison’s college seal every time I make my way past Swasey Chapel. (For those of you who graduated more than 20 years ago, a six-foot-wide seal now adorns the brick plaza—and current students avoid stepping on it at all costs for fear they might not graduate.) I’m not entirely sure what I suspect might happen if I just stomp on the darn thing as I walk to Huffman for lunch or trample on it heading into the Chapel for Alumni Convocation every summer. Heck, I could spit on the thing (don’t worry, I would never), and it would have no effect on my life whatsoever.

Yet I don’t spit or trample or stomp. I carefully make my way around the seal, just like nearly every Denison student. But I don’t have a Denison degree, and I’m not currently working toward one. So what gives?

There’s a little part of me, I realize, that is feeling all right with tradition these days. Perhaps that comes with age. Plus tradition gets pretty intense around here as spring heads toward summer—there’s really no avoiding it. There’s the gear-up for Reunion Weekend, of course, when Denisonians come home to revisit their college days, but before that, there’s Commencement, a time when soon-to-be graduates try to soak up everything Denison before leaving the Hill. It’s really sweet how they start missing Denison before they’ve even left.

One of the big events leading up to Commencement is Senior Week, during which students are handed a “bucket list” to work through. Because I didn’t do much of this kind of thing during my own college years, and because I feel— every once in a while—as if I’ve missed out on something having not gone to Denison, I spent one afternoon in early May working my way through the bucket list right alongside the seniors. I climbed the bell tower with a group and rang a Swasey bell on my way back down. I heard the history of the tower and saw the notes on the walls written by the bell-ringers of years past. I saw the beautiful interior of the observatory for the first time, and I learned all about its construction and inner workings. I even headed over to Cookie Sunkle’s office in Gilpatrick House to take a look at the advice offered by the Class of 2014 in what would become the last all-class email they would receive as students. I’ll admit I did skip the Whit’s frozen custard offered up by Alumni Relations—that’s one tradition I probably embrace a little too often. (Pre-2003 alumni: Whit’s has become a Denison tradition just as solidly entrenched as the Evergreens’ red velvet cake was in your day. And that’s pretty entrenched.)

In just a few hours, I realized why my intern was so appalled at my lack of excitement over my own graduation. To her, walking across that stage was the last item to be checked off her bucket list. While I’m still happy with the way I spent my own graduation day—with friends who are now scattered all over the country—I’m glad I have made way for a little more Denison tradition in my life. Though I don’t have a degree from this college, I do feel like a Human of Denison, a true Denisonian.

And that is why I will never set foot on that seal.

Published July 2014