Graduation is a day most people yearn for, yet for Mia, its one she dreaded. After three years of studying a degree she doubts will affect her life, the last thing she wants to do is wear a stupid dress and heel and walk across a stage, to shake the hand of a Dean she’s never met. But, it’s what her mother wants.
Before the ceremony began, everyone was ushered to their seats in a great hall overlooking the river Thames. Everyone around her was giddy with excitement, many leaning over chairs to talk to their classmates for the last time but Mia couldn’t do it. The hat on her head felt too heavy; as more people filed into the room suddenly she started to feel claustrophobic. Her breathing started to come in short gasps as she thought to herself “No Mia, this is not the time for a panic attack.”
As if sensing her turmoil, the girl sitting next to Mia handed her a small flask. Without giving the girl a second look Mia took the metal object of sin and tried to drink as much as she could in one gulp. Expecting the burn of alcohol, Mia looked at the girl surprised by the sweet flavours attacking her tongue. Only now did she concentrate on who handed her the flask; the horrible thought that she could have just been drugged, mixed with her confusion over the flavour, pushed her rising panic attack to the back of her mind.
The girl’s face was vaguely familiar. Mia recognised her green eyes, yet today they shined bright with excitement, rather than the indifference that normally graced her face. Her skin was smooth, all blemishes are hidden under a soft layer of makeup and her lips were slightly pinker than they usually were. Her normally frizzy hair was straight as silk, neatly pinning her graduation cap to her head. “Anna?” Mia said in a soft gasp, finally locating the girl’s name. Throughout there three years at university, Anna had rarely shown up to lectures, and when she did she was always in pajamas or workout clothes. It was shocking, to say the least, to see her dressed to function rather than looking like she has just stepped out of bed.
“I know,” Anna smirked, “I scrubbed up good.” Mia didn’t know what else to do besides laugh. Anna and Mia have never been friends. Rather acquaintances. Both girls were part of the small group of smokers within the class, resulting in them getting to know each other briefly during lecture breaks. “You don’t look too bad yourself if you ignore the faint green tint to your skin.” Anna teased.
“What was in your flash?” Mia asked, ignoring the playful banter.
“Pornstar Martini. Why? Did you think it was poisonous?” Anna’s playful remarks were infuriating Mia. Why was she not worried? Why did she not care? And how did she sneak that alcohol inside?
Choosing to ask the most important questions first, Mia placed her hand in front of Anna, silently asking for the flash. “Why aren’t you nervous?” Mia whispered after taking another long gulp of the much-needed alcohol.
“Why should I be?” Anna asked, her hand out for her own sip of liquid courage. “Mia, we went to university for three years. We drowned ourselves in debt for three years. We stayed up through the night on more occasions then I can count, for three long years. Today is our day.” The words did ring true; Mia couldn’t ignore that. Yet somehow that wasn’t enough to calm her thoughts. Instead, she smiled softly at Anna, thanked her, and told her how beautiful she looked. “Well I have to look good today, my boyfriend is somewhere in that audience recording my every moment and I refuse to look like a mess on camera.” She replied with a wink. “You too look very beautiful. Just try to relax and, if it makes you feel better, at least our names are lost in the middle of the roll call. At least this way we won’t be first or last; our long walk will be utterly unremarkable to the audience.”
“I can only hope so…” Mia replied as an organ suddenly started to play. The speeches by department heads began, and despite being fascinating, it made the waiting to cross the stage feel like it was never-ending. Soon, rows of students were being ushered to the side of the stage, being told to wait until their names were called out. Thankfully, seeing how this process panned out, Mia had already planned her decent.
As each name was called out Anna, Mia and Ismail (the boy sitting beside Mia) distracted themselves by predicting the pronunciations of each name. Sometimes people had over five names, and when the lecturer decided to read the name in full, their calls lasted throughout their walks. Other lecturers chose simply to read the first and last names. Far less entertaining and almost less meaningful. After working so hard for a degree, Mia believed every name they had should be spoken, loud and clear. Ismail and Anna disagreed with her, Anna going as far as to claim: “After working so hard for three years we want this over and done with so we can drink the universities cheap champagne!” Ismail shook his head, displeased with Anna’s obsession with alcohol but admitting he was looking forward to the food.
As the row in front of them stood up, slowing making their way to the side of the stage, Mia started to panic. “Where do you put your phone when you go on stage? Where do we place our programs? Where -”
“Here,” Ismail stated, waiting patiently with his hand out. Not completely understanding what he wanted Mia placed both of her items in his hand. “That wasn’t what I meant.” He said with a teasing chuckle. “Look. Leave your bag, program, and coat on your chair. I highly doubt anyone will try and steal anything in the middle of graduation. I’ll have your phone in my blazer pocket and as soon as I’m done I’ll hand it back to you. Now please, for the sake of my sanity, calm down and get ready to stand up.”
Stand up. The phrase echoed throughout Mia’s mind. Everyone else around Mia had already risen but she couldn’t find her feet. It was at this moment that Mia realised that she was finally free from education. This wasn’t a thought that comforted her. Now she will have to decide who she wants to be in the world; what occupation she wished to thrive for, the impact and legacy she wished to leave behind, the woman she wanted to be. She will no longer be a student, no longer allowed to make mistakes. Suddenly, everything felt very climactic and she wasn’t ready for it.
Anna on the other hand was. Sensing Mia’s was not going to break herself out of her frozen seat, she quickly grabbed Mia’s arm and dragged her with her down towards the edge of the stage, before anyone could complain they were taking too long. Mia staggered and for a brief moment, Anna wondered if the girl might be drunk. But two gulps of (all be it, strong) pornstar martini isn’t enough to make a girl drunk.
Once their line had made it to the side of the steps, the formation to be called out was slightly slower. Anna and Ismail shared a concerned look regarding Mia, yet she was unaware.
All around her, Mia heard each round of applause for each name called out as if her head was underwater. The sound was there but it was not prominent enough for her to respond. She was vaguely aware of her hand in Anna’s and the thought made her want to wake up. Anna is not a friend. Anna is not a family. Anna is simply the girl she has classes with and drinks with and smokes with and…
“Anna,” Mia whispered so quietly, she wasn’t sure if she would hear her over the continuous celebrations in the background. Anna squeezed Mia’s hand to show her she was there. “You know you’re my best uni friend, right?” Mia found herself saying.
Anna looked at the girl behind her. Her brown eyes were sparkling with emotions, her tanned skin still too pale but less green than before, her curly hair just as unruly as ever and wondered why she had to say this now. Anna has always though of Mia as her friend, one of the only few people she could stand in their class. Whenever Anna came in she would sit next to Mia, whenever there were group projects they would be partners: to Anna their friendship was clear. “Well, I would hope so.” Anna teased. “I don’t just share alcohol with anyone.” Throughout their exchange, Mia’s mild breakdown, and subsequent breakthrough, they were nearly at the front of the line. There was only one more girl in front of Anna. “Make sure you cheer extra loud for me,” Anna said with a smirk and all too soon the booming lecturer’s voice called her forward.
“Savannah Hope David.”
Her name echoed throughout the auditorium, with Mia and Ismail being two of the loudest cheers. Anna waved to the audience as she went to shake the hand of the Dean and collect her fake diploma. As she reached the end of the stage she looked back at Ismail and Mia, giving them a cheeky wink.
“Maria Nieva Durá.”
Shakily Mia stepped towards the stage as her name was called. Her eyes stayed focused on the ground, watching each step, begging herself not to trip. Once she had made it to the top, she looked towards the roaring crowed and saw nothing. The lights above were so bright that she could all she could see was the stage in front of her. She heard her family screaming her name and cheering. Suddenly the idea of walking across the stage wasn’t daunting, it was elating. Bravery coursed through her veins like a torch in the darkness: she knew where she needed to go.
Taking the Deans’s wrinkling hand in her own sweaty palm, she wondered if this is how people felt when they shook hands with Dumbledore. The premise was the same yet the Dean lacked the air of power Dumbledore had. Walking past, slowly and surely, Mia was feeling nothing but confident. She saw the stairs at the end of the stage and knew she was ready to go back to the reality of the audience. As she approached the first step, feeling nothing but pride, she suddenly heard someone call her name from behind. It was the head of English with her fake diploma.
She felt herself blush as she hurried, stumbling slightly in her heels, to pick up the roll of paper. The head of English smirked at her and said, “It wouldn’t be you if thinks went perfectly,” with a soft wink. Feeling herself laugh she realised they were right. Nothing in life has ever been perfect for Mia but that is okay.
Walking back to the steps, she heard soft chuckles from herself and the audience and stopped shortly for photos by the university’s photograph on the steps. She heard Ismail’s name being called and smiled knowing that after these three long years and three long minutes she was finally leaving university happy. She was sure she had found two life-long friends, sure she was finally proud of herself and sure that anything that happened after this moment would be okay.
She had done it. She had walked the longest walk and survived.