A year ago I went to chapel and observed a bunch of students about to graduate. This year, reluctantly, I shunned the corresponding service in favour of the second half of England’s match again Costa Rica, which was so monumentally uninteresting that I didn’t even bother to look at the screen for most of it. We all make bad decisions.
This morning, our students graduated. I went to watch them line up along the side of the chapel, and clapped as they paraded past. I took an umbrella with me, as the skies looked threatening. It’s been warm recently, but two days ago Cambridge was mercilessly thundered and lightninged upon, and yesterday I arrived home semi-soaked.
As I watched the students in formation, observing the now familiar mix of camaraderie and nerves, and eventually embarrassment as we started to applaud and they perhaps realised how preposterous all this is, I found myself thinking that a rainstorm is a thing that unites us all. The rush to find a place of shelter, the resigned but smiling faces we make at each other as we come in from the wet, as if to say, This country, eh? I was a few minutes from home yesterday, the rain falling in sheets, when a young mother on a bike (complete with Rerun-style baby) pulled up next to me and asked if I would zip up the bag on her back, which had come open. Her eggs were getting wet. I can’t remember the last time I talked to a stranger in the street. I remember my own graduation ceremony only dimly, probably because I was so intent on not falling over as I knelt for the accolade that I forgot to take it in. If it had rained, things would have stayed in the memory.
It didn’t rain today. In fact it turned into something idyllic, beautifully sunny and breezy. I can’t speak for other universities, but here you graduate, then you clear off. By the time the degree ceremony takes place, the parties have all been had. The authorities bung you a piece of card in a plastic pocket, then you go back to your room, shove some things in a box, put everything in your parents’ car, and arrivederci Cambridge. That doesn’t capture the euphoria and heartbreak jostling for supremacy in the human breast, but it’s the mechanics of the thing.
It’s a good thing to escape. Well, I imagine it is; I’ve not succeeded in doing it. I did go home after graduation, but by October I was back again, this time for good. So now I watch the students packing up and there is a small yearning in me to help them carry their lamps and kettles, and maybe, if they didn’t mind, I could sit in the back of the car and go back home with them, for who knows what adventures in the future, and I promise I wouldn’t be a bother.
You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel a bit melancholy about the prospect of not seeing people again, and that’s as true of the people leaving as it is of those staying behind. Here is a recent Varsity article from one of our leavers. ‘I know that the memory of me will fade,’ she writes, ‘people will forget I was here. I will get lost in the trail of time and thousands of other students will take my place.’ But while it’s true that Cambridge the place will forget, the people won’t. Not all of them, anyway. And I find I remember particularly well the students who give us chocolates before they leave, as two did today, one with a card that I found unexpectedly moving. Valete, students! Onward and upward!