A Tam O’ Shanter for My Sis


If you go to school long enough, your rough edges are rounded off in the process. Or at least that’s true of the cap you wear at graduation.

For those of you who’ve walked upon the graduation stage at a junior high, high school, college, or graduate school, you’re likely familiar with the traditional cap and gown. The gown is that uncomfortable sheet made of some alien substance that traps heat better than asbestos. I imagine that insulation would prove quite helpful in the blustery halls of European Universities, where students and faculty were said to have worn such gowns centuries ago. At sweltering, summer graduations in California? Less helpful.

And the cap, or mortar board, is that square-shaped hat that doesn’t stay on your head all that well. As it happens, the sheer surface of the cap makes it rather aerodynamic. This explains why excited graduates send their caps flying skyward at the climax of any graduation ceremony. Or at least that happens in the movies, since the four sharp points of the graduation cap are more than a little dangerous – making climactic cap tossing illegal in the lower 48 United States (probably).

Unlike most hats that people wear these days, the cap sports a tassel that flutters into your field of vision each time you turn your head. The effect must be a bit like what a horse experiences as flies incessantly buzz around her eyes. A gold tassel in your line of sight means you got pretty good grades. Another color means you got grades. Grades good enough to graduate, that is.

If you should continue your education, you are rewarded with increasingly ornate caps, gowns, and accessories. A master’s degree graduate receives a colorful “hood” whose colors correspond with her school and disciple of studies. I should note that the hood does not look at all like a hood, but more of a ring of cloth that is nearly impossible put on yourself without the help of a nearby faculty member. One can only assume that hood placement must be a part of the education of any professor worth her salt, or part of their own graduation. And when these and other folks graduate with a doctorate degree, they get special velvet designs on the sleeves of their robes. Topping it all off is the tam o’ shanter – the doctoral cap of Scottish descent that does away with the pointy corners of the mortar board for the poofy sensibility of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Or maybe the tam o’ shanter (or tam) just stays on your head better that way. I wouldn’t know since I’ve not earned the right to wear one.

However, the young woman in this photo most certainly has.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree, my sister-in-law decided to trade her pointy cap for a tam o’ shanter by going to school for another four years. It didn’t matter to her that she’d have to study forensic psychology, profile sexual predators, write a towering dissertation, or intern far from home in Texas. No, she would have her fancy Scottish graduation hat at any cost.

Michele graduated with her Doctor of Psychology just a few weeks ago, and I had the privilege of tagging along to cheer her on. A crowd of family and friends gathered at the historic Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, California, right upon the waters of the San Pablo Bay. These folks were bursting with joy, pride, and relief as the students in their lives walked the stage to receive their diplomas and their hoods. In all seriousness, I shared those feelings myself as I saw Michele take her place on stage. She was just a junior high student when I met her, watching reruns of Law & Order in her free time. This graduation day signified the fact that she had followed her passion all the way through years of school to take part in the very same people helping profession she had watched on TV all those years ago. Heck, she’s now the most educated of any of my family members, all before the age of thirty. How’s that for an accomplishment?

I snapped this portrait of Michele just after the commencement ceremony came to close, lit naturally by the afternoon light that flooded in through the old windows of the pavilion.

Michele, I’m so proud of you. And just a little bit jealous of your tam o’ shanter (complete with gold tassel, in case you didn’t notice).

I can’t wait to see what comes next in your life, and I’ll be praying for you along the way.

Hang this photo on your wall

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Do you have any words of encouragement or wisdom for this graduate? Share them in the comments below!

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