Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 19, 2008

A work in progress

When the alarm went off Saturday morning, I discovered husband Art was already awake. He enjoys awakening early to contemplate life - or at least sort out his plans for the day - before the world begins to stir.

I told him I was excited, emotional and a bit nervous. Oldest daughter Mariya would be graduating from Kansas State University that day and I had made arrangements to don my academic regalia and present her with her diploma.

Art said he had mixed emotions. On the one hand, he feels that a graduation ceremony is "much ado about nothing" and yet it still is a point of change - a time when a person quits doing one thing and begins doing something else.

"I consider Mariya to be a work in progress," he said. "For that matter, we all are works in progress - or should be."

I agreed, adding that I think that's true no matter our age. Traveling, studying, meeting new people and learning new skills all contribute to changing us throughout our lives.

We stopped philosophizing and got ready for the big day, going our separate ways. Art and youngest daughter Katie would videotape the ceremony in Bramlage Coliseum while I would enter with other faculty members and the soon-to-be graduates.

A bagpiper began the ceremony and we marched in. We stood for the National Anthem and listened to the welcome and introductions by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

I was looking forward to the commencement speaker. Such addresses are rarely memorable, but I had heard great things about Michael Wesch - a K-State professor and cultural anthropologist who explores the impact of new media on human interaction. He spent two years studying a remote indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea after graduating from K-State in 1997. He returned to K-State in 2004 to teach after receiving his master's and doctoral degrees in Virginia. He was recently named the national professor of the year from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

I wasn't disappointed. He immediately connected with the graduates when he said he was in their shoes just 11 years ago. He added that he felt unfinished, wasn't ready and was unsure what he wanted to do with his life. He asked how many of them felt ready. Only two or three out of the hundreds in attendance raised their hands.

Wesch told about his experiences in Papua New Guinea - how he at first didn't understand any of the language, except for the one word they had adopted - white man.

"People there would say, 'blah, blah, blah, white man' and laugh and 'blah, blah, blah, white man' and laugh again. I got kind of tired of being made fun of," he chuckled.

He said he felt like he lost his identity in that remote culture - where there was no electricity, no running water and no modern conveniences. But then, as he gradually started learning more about the people and their traditions, he felt like he was creating a new identity for himself.

He said as an anthropologist, he could make all kinds of observations about the symbolism involved in graduation. The black gowns, for instance, could symbolize a tomb for the old self being left behind and a womb for the new self about to emerge. Or the sleeves could be considered wings to carry the students off on their new adventures, he added, flapping his arms and laughing.

He said we might ask ourselves what can just one of us do in a world where technology has given us the ability to destroy ourselves as a species or where the richest 250 people have more wealth than the poorest 2.5 billion have together. He answered by relating an Aztec legend.

A long time ago there was a great fire that covered the Earth. Animals started to run, trying to escape from the fire. But a small bird was filling its beak with small drops of water from a river and returning to the fire to throw that tiny bit of water on the flames. The bird kept going back and forth, but its efforts had no effect on the fire below. An owl observed the bird from a distance and finally flew over to ask the bird what it was doing. "I do the best that I can," the bird answered.

His story seemed particularly fitting because Mariya's slender frame has always seemed somewhat at odds with her passionate beliefs about justice and what is right. She has a job, but isn't sure just what she'll be doing long term. Like many of us, she wants to make a difference. In the story, the owl and other animals joined the little bird, digging trenches, adding water and doing whatever else they can until they finally stop the fire. Is she that little bird, or one that joins another to help out? Of course, I cannot answer this question, for like all of us, she's a work in progress.

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