I had only been at the DCN about two months before I covered the 2017 graduation season here in the Lakes Area. I was tasked with photographing both Harris-Lake Park and Spirit Lake that year — the photos were…OK. I ended up writing a column that year about how the ample hugs one sees at commencement saved me from the photographic challenges that come with gymnasium lighting.
This year, I'm in the News Editor chair, still covering two graduations, and I started to think a bit differently about those hugs. That first year, they were the small, dependable moment, when I knew the photo wouldn't turn out too blurry. Now, I see them as something else. I see them as evidence of how each tassel atop each graduate's head came to be turned.
After covering more than a handful of commencement ceremonies at this point, I know the routine. Post up ahead of the processional to get them coming in. Get a few steep shots of the seated graduates. Take some candids while they're listening to the speakers. Turn around and get some shots of the speakers. Move to the side of the stage and get the graduates walking across with their diplomas.
But these days what I really look forward to is what happens out in the hallways.
There's almost always a kid wearing some graduate's mortar board (you know, the fancy hat with the tassel). There are often a few friends tearing up as they talk. There are grandparents posing proudly beside their graduates. And there are hugs — hugs galore. Some are so quick I can barely get my camera to my eye before they've passed, but others linger long enough to fire off a few frames in a row.
And all of that is part of the story. Every hug, every handshake, every smile that day is really the latest happening in the shared experience between two people. Often it's family. But it can be a teacher who went the extra mile to help that student pass. It can be a neighbor who had just as much influence on the graduate's character as a parent. It can be a friend who saw their peer through a difficult time that hardly anyone else knows about. These expressions of what led up to the day's celebration literally pop up everywhere in the hallways, and you're lucky if you can record just a few.
Fortunately, that's not the point — I mean, unless you're the journalist specifically tasked with recording such things for posterity. The point is to recognize graduation isn't about one, single day. It's about all the steps — simple and difficult — that helped them cross that stage, and it's about all the steps that are still to come. The hallways are where the young people of yesteryear stand side by side with the adults of tomorrow.
And someday the young minds clad in cap and gown will shape still younger minds and perhaps find themselves standing in a hallway waiting for their turn to hug the latest graduates in recognition of all they've accomplished. Commencement is part of a cycle in many ways — the top of the hour in a day that doesn't end. We celebrate what the young people in our community have done, but we also look ahead to what they will do for their communities.
What I see in the hallways after commencement captures that idea best, because no graduate turns their tassel alone. There's a community behind them. A community hoping it did a good enough job to help them go far, and a community hoping they'll go even farther than those of us who came before them.