By Rene Allen
Saturday morning I had one of the best seats in the Mesa Arts Center and a job as a professional photographer. My son hired me to help him shoot the first dental school graduation in the state of Arizona. My angle was to be the handshake between the dean and students as they walked past the dignitaries to receive their doctoral hoods on the other side of the stage.
My husband and I sat in the cordoned-off balcony looking directly down on the stage. Fifty faculty members sat in three rows behind the speaker’s podium, their colorful gowns and doctoral hoods speaking of an accumulation of education and experience in the fields of public health, oral health and other related areas. Three people, including Richard Carmona, the country’s previous Surgeon General, were to receive honorary degrees. Carmona would be the commencement speaker.
A pianist at a Steinway grand played hauntingly familiar music. The moody, introspective phrasing of “Pachabel’s Canon” stirred my memory. By the time the graduates entered, I was well into reliving a balmy night in May in 1975. I was 24. Wrapped with me in the silky robes of my own graduate gown was the secret of my first pregnancy.
The graduates filed in and took their seats. They were young and beautiful, confident and poised. So must I have been. The significance of achievement and mastery – for isn’t that what graduation is, an acknowledgement that you, the graduate, have shown mastery and proficiency in the areas of study, that you now have expertise, and with it comes certain rights and privileges – was the purpose of that well-planned summer evening in front of the College of Medicine at the feet of a white marble statue of Hippocrates. That night I received numerous awards including Outstanding Woman Medical Student. I don’t remember the speaker except that he was someone of prestige and that he came to us at the University of Arizona from Harvard. What I do remember is soaring with the stars, of being so alive and intelligent and full of knowledge anything seemed possible.
I don’t know if ever again I felt so powerful and able. The realities of participating in the events of life and death, of motherhood and of being a wife and managing a home, rapidly made me aware of limitations. What I knew and had learned was not enough. Regardless the desires I had to excel, to never err and be a good person, I did make mistakes; I got tired and frustrated and angry.
Tears came to my eyes. Graduation is coming of age; it is leaving the protected nest of education and learning to fly, it is taking the leap forward into your own life and finding you have resources beyond those you ever imagined. But it is more than that. For one day you soar with the stars, and the next, locked in an arm wrestle with life, you learn about limitations.
I turned my camera to the stage and focused the lens. It is a great lens, one my husband gave me for Christmas, a 300 mm telephoto with an image stabilizing capacity that can handle shaky hands – a human thing.
No one except the man sitting next to me, the one with whom I had shared more than thirty-five years, knew that on a sweet May evening a long time ago, I had received my own doctorate, an M.D., with all the rights and privileges associated therewith; that a few months later we would have our first child; that we would have three more children; that I would finish an Ob-Gyn residency, practice medicine for 17 year and that I would leave medicine. What people knew about me, among those who even knew I was there, was that I had been hired by Ben Allen Photography as an assistant to shoot the A.T. Still University Dental School commencement.
And it was okay.