From The Cap and Gown, 1900.
A young friend recently asked me if I had an old graduation gown she could wear for a third-grade play in which she was playing a Supreme Court Justice. I keep many of my old things and have a pretty decent dress-up chest at this point; I’ve helped with costumes before. But this time, I had to tell her I didn’t.
You see, the morning of my college graduation, in Chicago, I was running late. I snatched what I thought was my gown from the closet—only to arrive at the gymnasium and discover that in my haste I’d grabbed my roommate’s black rain slicker.
I panicked, running around looking for official university personnel. At length, I found a woman who said she might be able to dredge up some kind of spare. I figured it would be too long—I’m short, and the robe I’d ordered had been cut for someone 5’3″—but at least I’d look like a graduate.
Perhaps I should mention that I was one of the student speakers at the ceremony. Lest you think this was a marker of my academic acumen, it wasn’t—the only qualification I remember having to meet came when an interviewer asked me to “tell a joke” to prove my hilarious bona fides. (I’d recalled a dirty-old-man gag about a man named Katz having sex in a car, repeated to me by my grandfather.)
My status as a speaker hadn’t been enough to entice much of my family to Chicago, but it mandated both my own attendance and my robe-wearing, two things that under other circumstances I might have considered optional. I was thoroughly relieved at the prospect of a loaner gown—at the worst, I assumed, it would overhang my dress by a few inches.
You’d think a near-college graduate would have learned that when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. The gown this woman produced was not too long; maybe it was reserved for those students with dwarfism, or perhaps the odd child genius. It was miniature. It looked sort of like the smock-ish thing that salons make you wear to protect your clothes from falling hair, or maybe some kind of sexy judge getup from a cheap Halloween store. I hereby sentence you … to hotttnesss!
I put it on. The black polyester came to mid thigh, the sleeves ended just below my elbows. My pink cotton dress hung down an awkward six inches below the hem. I told myself it was better than a raincoat. I told myself no one would notice.
I ran across a girl whom I’d known only by sight, and then because she often wore a stuffed unicorn perched on her shoulder. “Your robe is too small,” she said.
For the first time, I found myself glad I’d had to give away most of my graduation tickets. And glad no one would be taking pictures.
How did it go? Fine, I guess. As well as speaking to thousands of people in a disposable spa kimono can. In short, it felt slightly like a nightmare. Afterward, I took the tiny robe off and stuffed it in the trash. Later, I learned I’d have to pay for it—well, of course I did.
Anyway, “I didn’t keep my gown,” I told my friend a few days ago. “It’s too bad—it would have fit you perfectly.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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