Celebration, Tradition, Ritual: The Long Gray Line

The Citadel Class of 2008 forms The Long Gray Line.

I’ve just lived the quickest 4 years of my life so far. I’m not sure that is how my son would put it however. As the mom of a cadet at The Citadel we’ve measured the past 4 years by how many Parents Weekends and Corps Day weekends have passed.  For the cadets going through the rigors of the 4th Class System and navigating the ins and outs of the cadet chain of command, I’m sure it has felt like every bit of 4 years.

Wednesday of this week marked the beginning of final exams for the cadets.  I sent a text to my son Tuesday to congratulate him on finishing his last class of his undergraduate career. I also asked if it felt strange.  His reply? “Yeah, weird.”

I’ve experienced a lot of changes in my lifetime. To help me cope with these transitions I’ve developed a few rituals. The changes we go through are a natural course of life, but for so many they signify a finality that is hard to bear. In my view, transitions, like graduation, are the happy changes of life and should be celebrated. It doesn’t mean that I won’t tear up next Friday at my son’s commissioning ceremony and the graduation parade which includes the Long Gray Line.

Toward the end of the final parade of the year, the graduating seniors are called out of their companies.  They line up shoulder to shoulder down the length of the parade field.  On command they march forward away from their companies and toward the review stands and their family and friends.  They leave their friends and move toward their new life as graduates. I watched this parade once my son’s knob (freshman) year. I’m sure I’ll have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as they move forward.  They will be tears of joy.

It took me 7 years to complete the course work for my master of divinity degree. My final semester at Columbia Theological Seminary I finally allowed myself to think about graduation.  Up to that point I was never sure if life circumstances (and finances) would allow me to complete the work and obtain my degree. Back then I had small little rituals to help me live into my graduation. I visited the web site of the church I was baptized in as an infant.  I sent notes to people who had helped me along the way.

The Class of 2008 as they cross the parade field.

To help get ready for my son’s graduation from The Citadel, I’ve developed other rituals.  One ritual is this blog. Writing these blog entries has helped me to document some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope my experiences and insights may help other Citadel parents down the road. Another is a new group I posted to Facebook for parents of cadets on military contracts and parents of graduates with children in a branch of the military. With the advent of Facebook many parents of Citadel cadets have joined groups for parents of cadets.  The groups help us connect with each other, share photos and advice. This new group should serve in a similar capacity. Unlike the “regular” liberal arts university I attended, I’ve learned parents of cadets at military schools get to know each other.  If your child goes on to a military career, these friendships between parents continue. For that I am grateful.

I grew up in a family who celebrated milestones and achievements big and small.  I’ve continued that tradition with my children.  We have a celebration for goals achieved and special occasions.  For years, the end of the school year was celebrated with a sparkling cider toast and a small present.

Some graduating senior cadets kick off their shoes and leave them behind when they reach the end of their march across the field.

Next week will be the first college graduation I’ve been through with one of my children. To celebrate the achievement, I looked for just the right gift. A fellow Citadel parent named Paul T. who is also a proud graduate of The Citadel suggested a Lifetime Membership in the Citadel Alumni Association. Paul is also a veteran of the Army and had served in the Armor Branch after his graduation. He has been a tremendous resource for me, and scores of parents, the past several years. I’ve learned to take Paul’s advice.  After all, he was right when he suggested I give my son the movie “Patton” when he found out he would be in the Armor Branch.

I sent a text to Nelson last week to let him know about our graduation gift to him. He had already called on Easter Sunday but called again to say thank you. Two phones calls in one week from him is a record!

Looking ahead to next week, I’m excited more than sad. Yes, it is an ending to what has been a wonderful 4 years. It also marks the beginning of the next chapter in my son’s life. He’ll have a month before he reports to Ft. Benning to begin his training in the Armor Branch.

I will be spending time between now and next week’s ceremonies making some small tokens to present to the various people on campus who have been particularly helpful to me the past 4 years. Several people on campus have served as my “sources” and helped me learn what terms meant, or explained various traditions when I only got the short answers from my cadet.  It wasn’t me spying on him as much as me trying to learn in general about the process he was going through.

My son is being commissioned into the U.S. Army next Friday and graduating next Saturday. He’ll split his time between the friends he has made over the past 4 years and his family. I’ll split my time between seeing my son and the many friends I’ve made over the past 4 years. We are all richer for the experience.

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