It seems contradictory. There's the solemn music, the black gowns, the medieval pageantry and the stirring speeches on one hand.
And there's the giddy energy suffusing most of the participants on the other.
Graduation marks the cusp between two stages of life. The more cynical among us would characterize them as the stage where you can't wait to be finished with school and the stage where you wish you could go back to school.
The rest of us would recognize it as a celebratory acknowledgement that life is tough but accomplishment is nonetheless sweet.
At least that's how I felt 35 years ago when I marched into Ohio Stadium, my tassel swinging like a pendulum from the mortarboard precariously balanced on my head, my eyes glued to the diploma-laden tables carefully arranged on the field.
There is a picture of me taken by a friend; in it a journalism professor, whose name I regrettably do not remember, is holding out a diploma and a hand for me to shake.
The photo records my eye fixed on the diploma, my left hand clutching it like a drowning man grasping a lifeline and my right reaching vaguely to return the handshake in a half-hearted stab at maintaining proper etiquette.
For a high-school dropout who had finally learned the previous generation was correct in its prediction that without a diploma one's career aspirations could extend no further than the pumps at the local service station, it was the defining moment. The long-sought document was in my hands.
Which is more than graduates of some other colleges can say.
Let me explain. Ohio State has many an accomplishment to be proud of, from research findings to athletic feats. Topping them all, in my opinion, is its graduation choreography. Many universities hand out dummy diplomas, either to avoid mixups or to ensure rented gowns are returned in good order.
OSU's practice is to confer the actual document, and considering that the spring 1984 commencement included 5,542 degrees, it's a big deal.
At that ceremony, graduates gathered in St. John Arena, which is across the street from Ohio Stadium, where the ceremony would be held.
Picture more than 5,000 young people in various stages of graduation day euphoria, some to the point of unruliness, dressed in identical black gowns, packed into phalanxes of up to several hundred each and marched in order past the Jesse Owens statue, into the yawning stadium and up to seating blocks assigned by college.
If you wonder how they did it, it was sort of like kindergarten: "Keep Susie in front of you and Johnny behind you and don't lose your place or you'll be sorry."
Once the diploma was in my hand I opened it and there was my name in heavy black print and signatures of the appropriate dignitaries affirming that, contrary to all expectations, Mike James was entitled to all the rights, privileges and honors appertaining to satisfactory completion of his studies.
Apparently among the rights, privileges and honors was that of transferring my worldly wealth to Ohio State via the alumni association, which had thoughtfully slipped in a copy of its magazine and a mail-in card on which to denote my first donation to the university. I still have the card.
Later that day, I rode my bicycle down to the stadium, which by then was deserted. Pausing by the Jesse Owens statue, I reflected on the day. Cars whizzed by and pedestrians hurried along sidewalks on their own, non-graduation-related errands. It was hard for me to comprehend.
Didn’t they know what had happened here just a few hours before? Didn’t they know it was a life-changing day?
Because it was, for me and 5,000 others. And it is for 2019’s graduates too, whether they realize it or not.
The diploma is so much more than a piece of parchment, and the paper chase more than the sum total of hours spent in class and bent over books.
The diploma, as the cliche goes, is a passport to a better job and better pay.
The years spent in earning it hold their own value if the student comes to realize learning for its own sake is rewarding.
Also, times have changed since my graduation. Self-service pumps are the invariable rule now.
Without a diploma, you can’t even wind up working at a gas station.