Meditations on a Diploma

From all that I’ve been told and read and heard, graduating from high school is a big deal. Some of my friends came to recognize its significance gradually and early on, and others had it hit them during the ceremony itself. For my part, I knew early on that graduation was important in the same way that I knew that close to the Earth’s surface acceleration due to gravity is approximately 9.8 meters/second^2. The emotional significance of graduation took me longer to process, and I began by finally taking a look at my diploma. It’s funny how a flimsy half sheet of paper can hold so much meaning, and I think it’s indicative of our culture of achievement (or maybe our collective perspective on life) that we need to commemorate graduation with some kind of physical marker. I decided to look at the diploma line by line by line, and think about the meaning of each.

First, the text in full:

Palo Alto High School

Palo Alto, California

This Certifies that

Curtis Wu

Has satisfactorily completed a Course of Study prescribed for Graduation

from this School and is therefore awarded this


Given this month of May, two thousand fourteen

Palo Alto High School: I’m glad that my high school was named after a location rather than an individual. (This is just a personal choice, nothing against that high school across the street.) It places me in a specific spot on the planet and avoids the sometimes controversial nature of the legacies those individuals leave behind. As a local example, one of the middle schools is named after David Starr Jordan, who was the first president of Stanford University but also a notable eugenicist. The words themselves, “Palo Alto,” have a certain symmetry and aural appeal. I’m also surprised to find how much I identify with my high school. It’s the sort of comfortable familiarity that arises from spending much of my time there. Already, the words have a certain nostalgic appeal.

Palo Alto, California: Let’s get back to the idea of location. Why is it important, from a historical sense, that it be noted that this ceremony occurred in Palo Alto? We’re all products of our location. News reports usually begin with a statement of the location they are filed from, and the Battle of Gettysburg was fought around, you guessed it, Gettysburg. “Palo Alto” becomes a metonymy for all the idiosyncrasies of the Palo Alto bubble. In the same way that “Silicon Valley” represents the diverse Bay Area tech industry, Palo Alto is much more than a plot of land located in California.

This Certifies that: I suppose a diploma could also be considered a certificate. Watch out, dictionary definition coming through: certificate – a document that is official proof that something has happened (Merriam-Webster). The “something,” in this case, is a transition from dependence to independence. I find the definition hilarious because of the incredibly broad array of things that could have happened. Could I get a certificate that I ate Breakfast this morning? or that I have a Facebook account? or that there was a new nation created in 1776? I suppose in the last case, the certificate could also be considered a declaration. (See what I did there?)

Curtis Wu: That’s me. Or at least, my 18-year old self who had no idea what he was going to do with his life.

Has satisfactorily completed a Course of Study prescribed for Graduation: Sure, I studied in order to graduate, but I also studied to learn, to grow, to think, to mature, to discover, and to dream. I had the funny thought that Graduation was a disease that needed to be healed, and that passing classes was a way to cure that disease. A ridiculous thought, I know. Getting back to the more serious side of things, this phrase adds to the sense of finality and completion I get when I look at the diploma.

from this School and is therefore awarded this: Specificity is important. I have done enough to graduate from this school, but maybe not another one. My graduating class is one of the last ones which have no language requirement. I could have graduated from Palo Alto High School without studying French, but not a similar high school with a language requirement. I must consider the word “therefore.” There’s a certain cause-and-effect that exists in school that makes it simpler than the real world. It’s fitting that this causality is included in the diploma.

Diploma: I’m just feeling in a definitive sort of mood (I know that’s not the right way to use the word): diploma – a document which shows that a person has finished a course of study or has graduated from a school (Merriam-Webster). So a diploma is basically a specific type of certificate.

Given this month of May, two thousand fourteen: The diploma began with a statement of location and ends with a statement of time. Four co-ordinates for a specific place in space-time. And with that, the document encapsulates a moment of my life that has exists only in memory. And in Facebook photos.


Wow, two posts in two days? What’s the occasion? Besides the obvious, I will not have internet access in time to meet my deadline next week. Tune in in two weeks as we resume our regular scheduled programming!


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