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Archive for June 16th, 2008

Shawn’s Graduation

This is the last post I will write on my son’s Shawn’s graduation. It has NOTHING TO DO WITH PRAYER BEADS, but is for my friends and family. So, if you want to read about prayer beads, skip this post.

We woke up this morning all excited and ready to go. A quick breakfast and the extended family assembled in the hotel lobby and off we went. Even our younger son, Chris, who is always late, made it more or less on time – only 15 minutes behind schedule. Into the van and off we went.

The California Institute of Technology holds its commencement ceremonies on what is now known as Beekman Mall, but which my husband – class of old farts – remembers as the only slightly pretentiously named “Court of Man.” It’s a lawn. That’s what it is. A lawn that spreads between four big buildings and was, on this day, covered with hundreds or even a thousand or more white folding chairs. We – a party of 10 Ligockis and Petersons – found seats about halfway back on the right. The stage was far, the sun was hot, but we were so excited we didn’t notice – not really.

People milled about, children ran around, cameras clicked. Then the music started.

From the back of the lawn, the undergraduates processed in. For me, this was one of the highlights of the day. I had an aisle seat and every student – undergraduate, masters candidate and PhD, had to file past me. I got to look into the faces and the eyes of every kid taking this enormous step into the next part of their lives on this bright, sunny day. THIS was when I cried. And, as usual, no tissue.

Shawn marched past. Here is his picture to prove it. After Shawn came Cecilia. See the ears on her hat? After all the students filed past, came a long line of faculty. Now this was really impressive. Some – actually many – of these folks have Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals and/or MacArthur Genius Awards. Some were wearing them around their necks. All I can say is I was wowed. I was moved. The brains walking by, you know? And in such a profusion of colors – scarlets, golds, oranges, blues – even hot pinks – the colors of the schools they received their degrees from. It was intimidating and inspiring at the same time.

The commencement speaker was Robert Krulwich, one of my all-time favorite journalists. Imagine my luck – my kid graduates from one of the top technical schools in the world and I get to sit and hear a top journalist give them – and me – advice. And his advice was this – when you are asked by friends and relatives and other non-science junkies what you are working on, don’t launch into some long description of th technical aspects of your work that will only choke them with boredom and make them feel dumb. Instead, tell them a story. It is the power of story, Krulwich said, that captures the imagination, that sparks the desire to know more and that draws non-scientific people to the side of science.

And then they started the long list of names as the kids walked across the stage. I got this great picture of Shawn.

Gluttons for punishment can view the entire 126-minute commencement service at CalTech’s website.

After Shawn crossed the stage, we all sat in the shade and had a generally fabulous time. When it was over – and no, they didn’t throw their caps. Much too smart for that, I guess – he joined us for pictures.

While we were milling about taking pictures, this young man – who kinda resembled Shawn – came over to speak to Shawn. He was wearing a cap and gown and I assumed he was a buddy of Shawn’s, maybe a for mer roommate or a lab partner or something. Then Shawn introduced him – “This is my professor, Eric Winfree” and I about swallowed my tongue. Dr. Winfree is the MacArthur Genius Award winner that Shawn worked for last summer and for part of this year as a teaching assistant. His field is DNA logic. He looks about 12. I just couldn’t come up with a single intelligent thing to say, except “Hello, nice to meet you.” He did say Shawn was an exceptional young man. Wowowowowowowow. Wow.

Then we had some fun pictures. Here is one of Vanessa, Shawn and Chris’ 11-year-old cousin, and her dad, Rocky, preparing for what’s coming . . . SOON.

We all walked to the Athenaeum for a post-commencement luncheon of a really good chicken salad before splitting up. Our dinner reservations were for 7:30 at The Parkway Grill.

Now, this is where the day got even better – I didn’t think it could, but it did! Ten of us Ligockis and Petersons first sat in the lounge and had a celebratory drink – beer, wine and Cokes. When we were seated – at a lovely table in the middle of restaurant next to a large flower arrangement, Shawn was placed at one head of the table and his uncle Rocky at the other. Somehow – and I swear this was serendipity – everyone sat exactly where they should have in order to have the maximum good time! I was smack between Shawn on my right and Chris on my left. Across the table were Shawn’s Uncle Mike, Aunt Donna and Aunt Leticia. His 11-year-old cousin Vanessa sat to Chris’ other side.

And then it was like a dream – really and truly. We had Champagne (REAL Champagne) to toast the graduate. Over appetizers and entrees that all agreed were heaven (I think Uncle Dean’s word for his filet mignon was “orgasmic”) we drank wine and laughed and talked and ate for THREE HOURS. I cannot over exaggerate the deliciousness of the food nor the kindness and attention of the wait staff, from the sommelier to the waiter, Lance, to the busperson. To all the folks at Parkway, this was a magical, glorious evening and my family and I will always be grateful to you for one of the finest evenings of our lives. People, if you are ever in Pasadena, eat at the Parkway Grill.

And then it was back to the hotel, where Terry and I sat up and talked about the day and the night for an hour. We agreed we are among the luckiest people in the world – lucky to have such a son and lucky to be able to fete him this way. I wish you all – ALL -could have been a part of this day.

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