This column is dedicated to the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law class of 2020. I also dedicate it to anyone else who graduated in May, just so no one feels left out. But the aforementioned soon-to-be lawyers have a special spot in my heart, because they were my first graduating class as a full-time teacher.
Thanks for putting up with me.
I know this is your graduation column, but could we talk about me some more?
I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself and for your other professors and parents and siblings and grandparents and paramours and whatnot. That’s who graduation ceremonies are for, after all, and we didn’t get one. Poor us. We would have liked to see you glide across the stage, shimmering with hope, tripping over your big, black Snuggies, acting like you’re not about to bust like a swollen tick that subsists entirely on a diet of pride.
Oh, OK. I’m sorry for you, too. But not because you’re being cast headlong into a world full of maniac judges, rubber bullets and bodies piled into refrigerator trucks. I’m mostly sorry that you’re missing one of the few opportunities our society gives you for an honest-to-god rite of passage.
We ask a lot of law students. We want them to alter their brain chemistries during a time that the cookies in their frontal lobes are not quite finished baking. We ask them to read the terrible things that humans do to one another until their senses are dulled, so they can look at murder, pederasty and burning crosses with objective apathy. To suffer through all that and not even get to take the blood oath, is larcenous. (OK, OK, there’s no such thing as a “blood oath” for graduating law students. Or is there? You’ll never know for sure.)
Ceremony is both important and ridiculous. It is always a perfect thing in your imagination and a wretchedly imperfect thing when you do it. When I graduated college, they didn’t give us our degrees when we walked across the stage. It was just an empty paper towel tube. Weeks later, we reported to an administrative office in a Soviet-style basement bunker to receive our real achievement logs. I showed up for mine and — I swear to God this is true — the dead-eyed functionary who handed me my degree simultaneously produced a boombox that played a CD of “Pomp and Circumstance.” The majesty! The solemnity! After 15 seconds of Sir Elgar’s magnum opus, it was on to the next person in line, who needed a parking pass for next semester, and I began my life as a real-ass, college-educated grown-up.
Still, to skip a ceremony altogether, however ridiculous that ceremony may be, is to leave a void that is not easily filled. I didn’t know any more about adulthood when I walked across that stage, or when I was treated to a four C battery symphony, but for a little while, it felt like I did. That feeling is important. Jewish converts take a ritual bath called a mikveh so that they can emerge in a state of purity. Catholic kids take communion classes so they can drink blood and eat flesh on Sundays. New GOP Congress members have to crush a handful of baby hamsters before taking their first vote so as to curry favor with the daemon-sultan Azathoth. We all suffer through weddings, graduations and funerals so we can feel like something is different afterward.
That little boost of confidence, or reassurance that there are metaphysical whatnots or mark of approval that we all so desperately crave from our peers can provide an important push; one that keeps us believing in our courts, our faith or some other monolith, even when we have no real reason to do so.
You won’t get that boost. Because of an unpredictable, invisible actor that tears apart people’s lungs, you will have no hand to hold, no certainty, no formality in entering the world of laws at this time in the history of our stupid species. The absence of ceremony might make it feel like you’re on your own, forced to make it up as you go.
But, I want to tell you that, despite the empty hole where your ceremony should have been, you are still entitled to all the hope and pride you should have felt had you been allowed to walk. I am sure of this because of what I’ve learned in my years since law school and what I’ve observed over the last three, fantastically chaotic months: No one knows a damn thing. The law puts on airs of permanence and of being stuck in the past (we still use fax machines). But it is an illusion; the law is made, remade and unmade every day, by cops on the street, by lawyers on conference calls and by judges behind Plexiglas sneeze guards.
The security provided by graduation, or any other ceremony, is short-lived. It takes you a few months to realize that you still have no idea what you’re doing, despite having crossed the magic threshold into Grownupland. The feeling of “making it up as I go” and seeking approval from the adults in the room hasn’t really ever gone away for me, or for anyone I know, including my own mentors. The difference is that you get to a point where you realize there are no adults in the room at all and everything is made up.
This revelation is as empowering as it is terrifying.
Your graduation ceremony was supposed to reinforce reverence for the systems and institutions that govern our everyday lives. But unlike my graduating class, you already see quite clearly how fragile, how ad hoc, how illusory those systems really are. You are inheriting chaos. But you were always going to inherit chaos. That knowledge is powerful.
Listen: The smoldering legal system you’re about to commandeer is your chance to remake the world. You’ll get to decide if you want to be chained to your desk for 12 hours a day, or if you want to forsake your family for career, or if we need to cling to outdated formalism at the expense of decency, or if we should accept daily injustices as phenomena beyond human control. The universe of laws is an amorphous blob of molten copper, yours to reshape, refashion, repurpose as you see fit. Had you just graduated like the rest of us, you might have looked right past your own power, which is greater than ceremony, greater than the see-through monoliths that ceremony is designed to protect and greater than the law itself.
You can always call me if you get in trouble.
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.