61: Commencement

61: Commencement

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever!

Commencement

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.

~Albert Einstein

“Which side of the cap does the tassel go on again?” Mom asked, brushing the strands off her face.

“On the right,” I said, adjusting the little blue tuft on my own cap.

“What about my hood? Do I have it on correctly?” I turned around to see my mom scanning the line of students behind her, studying their outfits.

“Mom, for the hundredth time, your hood’s fine. You’re wearing it just like everyone else.”

Mom scowled doubtfully. “Are you sure? The back doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s not centered,” she said, trying to readjust it.

I let out an exasperated sigh before facing forward again. Some things never change, I thought to myself, but I smiled.

It was June 2nd and the atmosphere was heady at Madison Square Garden, as hundreds of graduating students prepared for the upcoming commencement ceremony. Amidst the elated scholars eagerly taking selfies and posing for group photos stood my mother and me.

My mother is an immigrant who left her family in India twenty-five years ago to start a new one with my father in the United States. She was an aspiring teacher, and had been in the middle of her undergraduate career, when she conceived me and decided to move, dropping out of college to raise me, and later my sister, in the heart of New York City. Twenty-five years later, both of us were graduating with master’s degrees in education. As we stood in line, clad in long purple gowns, waiting to enter the auditorium, I thought back to the experiences that got me there: the long hours I put into my job as a kindergarten teacher during the weekdays while attending classes in the evenings; the sleepless nights I spent studying for exams; and the weekends I dedicated to writing papers.

Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a happy shriek and someone yelling my mother’s name from further up the line. I leaned over to see who it was and watched as an unfamiliar woman about my age in a cap and gown waved and walked toward us.

“Mita! It’s so nice to see you!” she exclaimed. “Congratulations on graduating!” My mother smiled back, but to my surprise began to turn red.

“Thanks, Sue. You look wonderful,” mom replied before gesturing to me. “This is my son.” Sue’s eyes widened as I introduced myself.

“Oh wow. Your son is graduating, too?” she said incredulously. “That is so cute. You guys are getting your degrees at the same time. You must be so proud of him!” Mom gave a smile and nodded, her face still red. Sue turned to me and held out her camera. “Would you mind taking a picture of me with your mom?”

“Oh goodness, no,” my mom said quickly with a nervous laugh, but Sue wouldn’t have it. I could tell Mom was feeling very uncomfortable as she grimaced at the camera. After taking the photo, Sue gave Mom a quick hug and went back to her spot in line, shouting, “we finally made it!” That made Mom blush even more. What was going on?

“Do you see the line moving? How much longer do we have to wait out here?” she asked in a low voice.

“Don’t worry. The line is starting to move now,” I replied, taking a step forward. “Why were you so embarrassed to take that photo, Mom? Did something happen between you and Sue?” Mom shook her head and her face turned red again.

She was quiet for a few seconds and then she answered me. “Because I am ashamed of how old I am and how long it took me to get here,” she whispered. We had reached the entrance to the auditorium now, and before I could respond, we were directed to our seats. As we entered, I heard Sir Edward Elgar’s famous tune, “Pomp and Circumstance,” a staple at nearly every graduation event, as jubilant family members stood up and clapped, snapping pictures, shouting names, and waving furiously. I searched the crowd for my dad and sister, spotting them near the back of the auditorium as we sat in our seats.

As the ceremony began and the president proceeded to give her commencement address, I could not help but think about what my mom confided in me. Ashamed? Sitting next to her and seeing her in full regalia, I simply could not understand it. Here was a woman who left everything behind to start anew in a foreign land. A woman who devoted herself to supporting her husband, taking care of her children, and ensuring they received a good college education, all while holding down a full-time job and working toward the education she had halted all those years ago. I vividly recalled how she would apologize to my sister for not being able to bring her to a dance class because she had a test the following Monday. How she would clean up the dinner dishes and then open her textbooks well after my father went to bed. How she had to master English, which resulted in my sister and me having to read over her papers numerous times, much to our annoyance. I felt a tinge of guilt, remembering the times I complained.

Despite all odds, my mother had achieved one of her longtime goals. She would at last be able to teach her own class, and I could not be prouder of her.

At the end of the ceremony, the president conferred our degrees and the whole crowd burst into applause. I turned to my mother and gave her a hug, remembering all the sacrifices and all the struggles it took her. “I’m so proud of you, Mom,” I whispered for her ears only. She hugged me tighter. “Me too.”

My mother used to be ashamed of the fact that it took years for her to get her degree. I disagree. I told her that there was nothing to be ashamed of. If this isn’t the definition of what it means to succeed as an immigrant in this country, then I don’t know what is. As we left the auditorium together, I told her to keep her gown on at least until we reached the subway platform. My heart filled with gratitude and love as we walked arm in arm.

My parents always tell me there are few things in this world that are worth pursuing and that an education is one of them. But I think having a dream, and committing yourself to achieve it no matter what, is just as important. My mother is a prime example of that.

~Prithwijit Das

More stories from our partners