Citadel Parent Crafts Her Own Graduation Ritual

Chelle, Nelson and Brian outside the Summerall Chapel before the commissioning practice, May 5. Photo by Dorie Griggs.

We just returned from commencement weekend at The Citadel. We arrived Wednesday night to prepare for several days worth of activities.  One thing about a military college, they have plenty of rituals to help the graduates and their families make the transition.

On Thursday, I began my own graduation ritual.  My daughter, Chelle, and I visited campus early to deliver small candy bowls and notes I had prepared for a number of people on campus who have been very helpful over the past 4 years.  It gave me the opportunity to say good-bye to these folks who answered scores of questions from me.

We ended up with a bonus visit with my son, Nelson, that morning.  I was driving down the Avenue of Remembrance in front of the chapel when 2 cadets were about to cross the road.  I waved them across but one started walking toward our car.  It was my son! After 4 years all cadets still look a like. The Army ROTC cadets were heading to the chapel for their commissioning service practice. They practice everything there before a big event.

Star of the West Finals. This event is the culmination of many hours of practice in rifle drill. The winner will be named the "Best Drilled Cadet" and will have his or her name inscribed on the Star of the West Monument located near the flagpole on Summerall Field. That cadet will also wear the Star of the West Medal. The ship, Star of the West, was fired upon by Citadel cadets in 1861. From Schedule of Events for The Corps of Cadets, http://www.citadel.edu. Photo by Dorie Griggs.

After delivering the candy Chelle and I watched the Star of the West Finals, a competition to find the best-drilled cadet. It’s one of the graduation week events I had never had the opportunity to see. An added bonus was getting to see a first year cadet whom I had spoken to by phone but never met in person. He was wearing the #1 out of over 20 contestants in the competition.

My cadet said he was not attending the awards convocation and the baccalaureate service that afternoon so we visited the gardens of Magnolia Plantation in the afternoon.  I had already been warned by my friend Loretta, the mom of a ’10 graduate, that the cadets try to get in as much time with their friends this last weekend so I knew to make some of our own plans. The evening was spent with the family of a fellow Citadel Ya Ya. We look forward to seeing the Reigerix family each time we are on campus.  My daughter was relieved to find out Rachelle is a rising senior cadet.  In her words, “Great now we have someone to visit next year!”

Nelson Lalli receives his bars from his father Blake Lalli (right) and his uncle, John Lalli, LT Col.(Retired) U.S. Army (left). Photo by Stanley Leary.

Friday morning, we attended the commissioning service for the Army ROTC cadets.  The ceremony started at 8:00 a.m. but we arrived at the chapel at 7:00 a.m. to make sure we had good seats. There were 97 cadets commissioned that morning so the chapel was packed with family and friends. It was a moving ceremony executed with military precision. My ex husband and his brother, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel pinned Nelson’s shoulder boards on during the ceremony. One of the most moving parts of the ceremony came when the cadets receiving their commissions took their oath.  From our seats I watched a sea of right hands in the air all wearing their Citadel ring.

2LT Nelson Lalli receives his first salute from SFC Keith Polidoro. Photo by Stanley Leary.

At the end of the ceremony, the newly commissioned second lieutenants went outside to meet up with their chosen non-commissioned officer to receive their first salute. Some new officers passed a silver dollar to the NCO.  Some NCO’s passed a challenge coin to the new officer. (One mother told me she ended up paying over $40 for the silver dollar for her son.) Of course handshakes, hugs and photos followed the event. A scene repeated throughout the weekend of events.

We had a quick visit with the president of The Citadel and his wife, Lt. Gen John Rosa and Donna, have been gracious hosts to all the parents over the years.  They have also visited Atlanta for the annual “Pre-knob” gathering the Atlanta Citadel Club host.

Dorie and Chelle visit with the president of The Citadel, Lt. Gen John Rosa and his wife, Donna. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Since the forecast called for rain in the afternoon about the time of the Long Gray Line parade I asked Lt. Gen Rosa what would happen in case of rain.  He told me that unless there was lightening, the parade would go on.  His words reassured me later that afternoon.

At noon we attended the reception for the new Lifetime members of the Citadel Alumni Association. We gave our son the membership for his graduation present. It was a wonderful event, not dampened a bit by the rain that started to fall as we arrived.

The 2012 Summerall Guards perform in honor of the Class of 2011. Photo by Stanley Leary.

At 2:15 we took our spot on Summerall Field to watch the 2012 Summerall Guards perform in honor of the Class of 2011. We made sure to take plenty of photos for our friends who could not be there to see their cadets perform. My son and his fellow 2011 Summerall Guard watched in appreciation. We all watched as the skies began to look ominous again.

As if on cue, the rain began after the Summerall Guard performance.  Scores of people were already in place for the Long Gray Line graduation parade that was scheduled for 3:00. People began to speculate that the parade would be cancelled, but I relayed what the president had told me earlier in the day.  Only lightening would keep the parade from happening. Scores of families kept glued to the radar on their smart phones.

Waiting in the rain for the Long Gray Line ceremony. Photo by Dorie Griggs.

We huddled under umbrellas, under trees and some just stood there and let the rain soak through their clothes. Hundreds of, if not a few thousand, people surrounded the field in what at times was a total downpour. All of us waiting to see the Class of 2011 form one long line and march away from their classmates and toward the reviewing stands and their family and friends.

I can’t think of another event that would keep people outside in such awful conditions. It was a moment worth getting totally soaked to watch. As the command was given, the cadets locked arms and marched forward.

Members of Bravo Company march forward as part of the Long Gray Line. Photo by Marty Viegas.

The rain slowed down to a drizzle and we could see the faces of the cadets beaming as they moved forward. We were told that 1st Battalion was a bit disruptive during their Long Gray Line practice.  They kept doing “the wave” while in line.  On Friday when they reached our side of the field shouts of, “Do the wave.” spread down the line. With the TAC officers monitoring the line, and the threat of not walking at graduation was held over their heads, they did not do the wave. 

The Class of 2011 wave to their companies at the end of the graduation parade. Photo by Marty Viegas.

They did however wave to their company mates across the field. The cadets also didn’t leave their shoes on the filed as I had seen done in 2008.  An assistant commandant told me that was not a sanctioned tradition and anyone seen leaving their shoes would not walk either. Handshakes, hugs, and photos again took place.

Chelle and Dorie congratulate the one of the newest Lifetime members of the Citadel Alumni Association. Photo by Stanley Leary.

We missed the reception at the president’s house so we could go to the hotel to dry off and relax. To my pleasant surprise Nelson came with us and stayed through dinner and to watch a Star Wars movie on TV before he left to attend a graduation party with his buddies.

Our 12 year old was thrilled as well.  She told me, “This is just like old times.” Up next – Part II Graduation day.

The members of Bravo Company Class of 2011.

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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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