A Duck On The Mortarboard

Copyright 1999 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood
Fifteen years ago, it was common at my very large university for students to decorate their mortarboards with silly things at commencement. This was not an act of rebellion or defiance, simply a coping mechanism.

Put 4,000 students of roughly the same demographic group into identical black caps and gowns, and you have a lot of parents and friends asking each other, "Is that Bobby there, third from the left in the eighth row from the Section BB marker?" Thus in my day, many graduates would decorate their caps with signs saying "HI MOM" or "NEED A JOB", little plastic footballs, fuzzy dice, and so on. Then the parents and friends only had to ask each other, "Is that Bobby there, third to the left of the fuzzy dice, eight rows in front of the 'HI MOM'?"

So when my good buddy Tom got to town for my graduation weekend, one of the first things he did was ask what I was going to wear on my cap. I proudly brought out my little yellow Sesame Street(TM) rubber duckie.

Tom was horrified. "That's too small! Nobody will ever see it!" I was not swayed. Nobody needed to be able to count the feathers on it from the last row. All they needed to spot me was to see something yellow and vaguely duck-like on my mortar board. After all, how many other yellow and vaguely duck-like things would my co-graduates be wearing?

But Tom kept insisting (over the course of several hours) that my duck was too small. Finally, exasperated, I said, "Look, Tom, if you can find something bigger, I will wear it." I figured that would shut him up.

I unfortunately made this promise while standing in a hardware store. Almost immediately, Tom gasped. I followed his gaze. Tom started laughing. My heart sank. Who would have imagined that someone would willingly place a life-sized plastic duck on their lawn? But there I was, a victim of bad taste and my foolish promise, doomed to wear a lawn ornament on my head.

Fortunately, the all-campus graduation ceremony was a complete zoo. There were two very large beach balls and one inflated space alien getting bounced around. Caps had all kinds of decorations. There were far more bottles of champagne around than the administration was happy with (all aimed, of course, at the sour administrator that scowled disapprovingly at the hijinks). In short, people were rowdily happy, and barely noticed the lawn duck on my head.

I felt my promise to Tom only obliged me to wear the lawn duck to the carnival-like all-campus ceremony, not also to the Engineering-only ceremony. Unfortunately, the head of my department, a kindly old man who had been very good to me during my four years there, specifically requested that I keep it on for the Engineering ceremony. *Sigh*

The engineering-only ceremony is always a very subdued and formal affair. There were never beach balls, people usually took the decorations off of their caps, and it was much more stately. This was perhaps because everybody knew they would have to cross the stage to get their diploma cover from the dean. The dean was a very stern and intimidating gent who didn't seem the type to truck with any nonsense.

When my name was called, I was more than a little embarrassed. But I had made a promise to my department head. There was nothing do but get it over with. Hoping that the dean somehow wouldn't notice this life-sized plastic duck on my head, I took a deep breath and headed towards him.

But then I got my own personal sound track: five thousand people quacking. That was an experience I will never forget. So much for sneaking by the dean.

When I reached the honorable Daniel C. Drucker, Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he looked me up and down. Then he reached up and petted the duck.

It was very, very silly.

Some people claim that it is a goose, not a duck. False. It is a Pekin Duck.