For the last four years, I’ve had the honor of being a stage guest at my high school’s graduation, which means I mostly just sit there while people talk. At some point, I am introduced along with all the other people who merit a specific introduction—I stand, wave, and let the mostly inattentive applause that accompanies an obligatory introduction wash over me—and then let my consciousness drift while people make various speeches that include the same types of themes year after year. This isn’t meant to be some cynical take on graduation speeches. I make similar speeches every year at the functions I am required to speak at and think I am also saying something important.
Once the speeches are over and the time comes for students to receive their diplomas, my job is to stand at the end of the stage, bottom of the ramp, as they exit, and direct them towards a waiting photographer. The timing and efficiency of all this is very important or else you end up with a line of 50 students waiting to take a picture. But I feel that just ushering the students to the photography tent is not really befitting the moment, so I make it a point to shake their hands, say congratulations, and then direct them to the photographer.
This past year, we had 453 graduates. I said congratulations 453 times, once about every 10 seconds or so. Now, the shaking of 453 hands merits its own consideration, but I will leave that to those who create ads for the hand sanitizer industry and focus on this word “congratulations,” and the repetition of saying it 453 times.
Congratulations is a mid-fifteenth century, Middle French word derived from the Latin congratulari, which means “with joy,” from the Latin stem com meaning “together, with” and gratulari meaning “give thanks, show joy.”
The word “congratulations” is five syllables long. I remember in elementary school being taught how to count the syllables of a word. I was told to hold my hand under my chin and say the targeted word. Each time my chin hit my hand, that was a syllable. So “congratulations” is kind of a mouthful. This is why so often it is shortened to “congrats,” which is only two syllables, or two and a half depending on how you view the “ts” sound at the end. I’m not even sure if there is such a thing as a “half syllable,” but there is a lot to know in the world. Anyway, congrats feels a little less authentic, like how “thanks” feels less meaningful than “thank you,” or maybe less formal. There are times and places for the usage of both, of course, but as graduates come off the stage, the shortened “congrats” just doesn’t feel appropriate.
Saying a five-syllable word 453 times in the span of an hour or so with no break is an interesting process to experience. If students come off stage every 10 seconds, that means I said congratulations for one hour and 15 minutes, give or take for variations. This presents a couple of things to consider.
There are physical mechanics behind all speech—like anything else we do with our bodies and muscles—that are necessary for us to make a word. Saying the same five-syllable word over and over, strange as it sounds, becomes tiring, and can impact performance. There were a few occasions where I did say “congrats” rather than the full word because—well, I don’t know why—I’m not sure it was a conscious choice, but once I offered the shortened version I scolded myself and made sure I didn’t do it again—until I did it again. There were also a few times the word, the full word, did not come out of my mouth right, something like “congrasalations,” the verbal equivalent of a small hitch in someone’s gait. I fully sympathize with people who work the entrance of stores whose primary job is to say, “Welcome to Wal-Mart,” and maybe keep the shopping basket corral in order.
But there is another aspect of saying this multi-syllabic word 453 times, and that is the manner in which the word is said and received. Like I mentioned before, graduates walking off the stage are mostly amped up, nervy, and infused with excitement; so there was no casual, laid back “congrats” that came from me. I tried to maintain an enthusiastic “Congratulations!” the whole time. Body language, of course, has a lot to do with this. Try saying congratulations enthusiastically while standing still with your arms at your side. You’ll find it’s difficult to do, so I threw my whole body into it—arms spread wide, big smile on my face, and the slightest head-nod on the second syllable for emphasis.
The response from graduates is interesting as well. They’ve just come across the stage after shaking four hands, that of the senior principal, school board president, associate principal, and the principal after being awarded their diploma. Then they get to me. How many handshakes and congratulations do they need? Some students respond to my congratulations with an unenthusiastic “thanks,” focusing on the photography tent in the distance, while others giggle and smile with a kind of light floating walk. Some grip my hand strongly and shake vigorously. Other handshakes are like gripping a cold, dead fish.
By saying congratulations 453 times and receiving 453 reactions, I’m cognizant of the fact that there are 453 individual experiences walking across that stage, and reminded of a Wallace Stevens poem, “Metaphors of a Magnifico.”
Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.
453 graduates. 453 stages. 453 individual experiences. And this is why it’s an honor to be a stage guest at my high school’s graduation—to be a part of 453 stories even if my role in most of those narratives is to play a background, minor part—the random school adult standing at the end of a stage ramp, offering congratulations and providing directions towards a photo tent, after what is probably a bewildering whirlwind from the moment their name is called and they step upon the stage to when they exit and are greeted by me.
What a wonder it is to be a part of anyone’s experience, a part of their story.
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