Saturday, 19 December 2009


LAST Friday was Rachel's graduation, deferred from the summer when we were in Australia. It was a wonderful day.

The night before had been my lab's Christmas party, a truly festive game of bowling and on for a curry. It was a late night and so, try as I might, I looked a little dishevelled early the next morning. But it was rather fun, turning up at work in a suit, transferring vials of flies and sorting progeny through a microscope. I drew many strange looks.

Then I was off, via the photography studio and robing room, to the Aston Webb building and the Great Hall. The last time I was here was my very own graduation two years ago, an occasion I look back on with mixed memories - I was flustered because I was in the spotlight, needing to be here at this moment, here at another, but then I was completely unsure how to react when, on leaving the hall after the ceremony, we walked through the middle of the hall to a standing and rapturous ovation. It was a uniquely uplifting sensation. I was in equal measure laughing and, secretly, crying a little bit.

Graduands are only allowed two tickets each for the ceremony, so Rachel's parents sat in the Great Hall, whereas myself and Granny and John were to go to a screening room where the ceremony is broadcast live on to two television screens. As an overflow room it is not very big, so I went in early and reserved three seats, asking the two people flanking the aisle to protect them.

Back in the foyer Granny and John arrived and many photos were taken, particularly of Rachel in her robes and mortarboard next to a Christmas tree. It took a while for us all to be ready to go in and so, to my dismay, as we arrived the three seats I had reserved had become two. The people reserving them had left and so we were quite lucky we still had two. The rest of the room was packed so I stood at the back in the doorway. This was not a good place to stand because people would frequently approach, see that people were standing at the back, in the doorway and out into the corridor and, taking this as a sign that the room was full, proceed in anyway, just to see for themselves. Every time somebody did this we all had to shuffle around and breathe in to give them room, holding our breath for the few seconds it would take for them to come back out again, having confirmed their suspicions. Eventually room was made and I could move from the doorway into the room itself, propped against the back wall.

The ceremony began with a fanfare. It was quite the spectacle: everybody in their finery and robes, everybody geared up for occasion. But I was distracted from all of this by the third trombone player, the one on the right, because he had a magnificent beard.

The occasion was an opportunity for the Vice Chancellor/Pro-Vice Chancellor (I forget which) to promote what is going on at Birmingham - and there really is a lot. I have often got the impression that the University of Birmingham is forgotten (people automatically think of Aston), but this is a hub of pioneering research and many tremendously expensive developments. It makes graduating from here quite special. I was very impressed with Birmingham's rank within the UK and on a world scale, although I have now forgotten both*.

Standing in the overflow room was funny. Whenever somebody went up to receive their degree, often their family and friends, if present, would cheer and clap. In the Great Hall this would have been perfectly normal, but here we were disconnected from the hall - the graduand couldn't hear them. It lifted the spirit in the room, and those present were united in respect for those graduating. These people deserved their applause, even though they couldn't hear it.

In front of me there were a few young children, clearly bored and unaware of what they were supposed to be watching. One of them had easy-wipe cards with puzzles on, such as mazes and spot the difference. He would scribble all over them with magic markers, rub it out and then start again. He began playing a version of noughts and crosses with his mother. This involved writing your initial in a square, taking it in turns and trying to get four in a row. The boy began:


Now it was mum's turn:


I can only assume that the N stood for the lady's real name. But the young lad was not happy with this, for he rubbed it all out and told his mum: "but that's not your name... you're 'm' for mummy!"

Soon it was time for Rachel to go up to receive her degree, the only First in the crop of Biosciences graduates. Rather than stressed, concerned about where to be and when, or flustered because of the number of photographs required or, as I was, concerned about falling up the steps on the way, Rachel was the happiest I have seen her in a while. She was beaming, radiant and beautiful and I am incredibly proud of her.

*#66 of 600 (link)

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