Volume One Special Coverage: Pulling Together While Staying Apart


This One Is Special

Ken Szymanski

Like an old photograph, the events took time to develop.

I was an undergraduate working as an usher at yet another 1990s UW-Eau Claire commencement ceremony. The jobs were standard: Don’t let anyone use this door, keep this aisle clear, don’t let people congregate here, etc. But before the ceremony started, they called an audible. The photographer’s assistant was sick. They asked me to take his place.

The photographer explained that he would take a picture of every student, with the brand new diploma, shaking hands with the chancellor on his or her way across the stage. He needed to ensure that the correct picture proof was mailed to the correct student.

Enter the photographer’s assistant.

Step one:  Sit by the stage, discreetly.

Step two: As each graduate is called up, whisper the person’s name into a hand-held tape recorder, along with a quick physical description.

While condensing hundreds of individual’s physical descriptions in relentless five-second increments was challenging enough, UW-Eau Claire’s lack of diversity at the time made this even more difficult. Add the matching caps-and-gowns factor … and the photographer’s assistant job became the toughest in the gym.

My descriptions went like this: Robin Anderson … dark hair, glasses, somewhat short.

John Craker … male, shaggy bangs, white collar.

Jane Johnson, black hair, umm … gaudy necklace.

Trying to make each of these distinct after a few hundred became a challenge, as did avoiding negative descriptions, such as “goofy looking.”

Mark Smith … brown hair … medium height, average.

Richard Stien … ummm … standard average male, medium brown hair.

Jennifer Stertz … ummmm… ahh ... female … I don’t know … pass.


While to me they all started to blur together, the chancellor’s job was to make each one feel as if the whole ceremony has lead up to The Handshake.

Eye contact. Smile. Handshake. Click.

And the crowd, though they were asked to hold their applause until the end, started chipping away at the rule. After the first few dozen graduates crossed the stage in silence, someone cracked the Midwestern decorum: “Way to go Britzso!”

The crowd laughed. College security did nothing, which opened the door to the other revelers. A dozen students later: “You made it Josie!!!!”

Parents, grandparents, siblings waited for not just hours … but years … decades for these moments. They were bursting to acknowledge it. This is not just any graduate, parents thought. This is our son. Our daughter. Our story.

Someone rang a cowbell. Another family blew kazoos. A father without a filter yelled, “ATAWAY BROOKIE-COOKIE!!!”


Eventually, the graduates find jobs, get married, and have babies … babies that, in the hospital, all kind of look the same.

These babies need ID tags on their wrists and ankles to avoid mix-ups.

That isn’t just any baby, each of those parents will think.

This one is special.

She’s going somewhere.

He stands out from the crowd.

Someday, these kids too, will walk across the stage, shake hands with Authority, and exit down the stairs and into the past.

But not before we take a picture. Rest assured, we’ll take lots and lots of pictures.

Ken Szymanski is a regular contributor to Volume One Magazine, when he’s not teaching English at South Middle School. To read more from Ken, go to http://tinyurl.com/Ken-Szymanski.

Lasker Jewelers
Lasker Jewelers

Pulling Together Partners

The following organizations are currently supporting Volume One’s work in the community during the pandemic:

Lasker Jewelers

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire

Downtown Eau Claire Inc DECI

University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

Pablo Group

Wisconsin Independent Network

Middle West Management

Bon Iver

Royal Credit Union

Silver Spring

Evergreen Surgical

Charter Bank

Chippewa Valley Technical College

The Murty Henriksen Family

The Larry and Marie Past Family

The Dan and Kerry Kincaid Family

Anton and Rae Schilling-Smets

Brady and Jeanne Foust

If your organization is interested in supporting Volume One during this difficult time, nick@volumeone.orgcontact us.