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Graduation Photographs, by Caitlin Upshall

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

On the morning of May 23rd, I dwindle down my outfits to two; neither one overly flashy, and both terrifically practical for a photo shoot. After we grab our coffees, I summon up the confidence to ask Megan how many outfits she brought. She gives me a sheepish smile as she starts to count on her fingers. I try to shut off the voice in my head that tells me I am celebrating too much.

Painting of aerial view of a fam
Sky View, by Kathleen Frank

We drive through the quiet city, stopping in front of yoga studios and tattoo parlors and colorful walls of hardware stores and patches of wildflowers near industrial sites, taking photographs in front of any background that complements our outfits. I squat down to take a picture of her and make her legs look longer. She returns the favor by sitting crisscross applesauce in her cap and gown on a wheel stop to get the best angle of my dress.

When I had graduation photos taken three years ago, I dragged my roommate across our school’s campus with a borrowed camera the day before our commencement. I carried two pairs of shoes, one dress, and no idea what the future held. There is the same feeling now, though “future” is a less broad term. When I thought we would still have a ceremony, I ordered a dress with pockets so I could have snacks within reach. Now, I use the pockets to hide my mask before Megan takes a photograph. We practice social distancing with everyone we encounter, and I keep lavender-scented hand sanitizer in my purse nestled between my lipstick and my eyeshadow.

Our professors have been using the pandemic as a motivational tool. They are emphasizing the need for leadership during this time and argue the relevancy of our public administration degrees. It was inspirational in the first few weeks, but now I am just tired. I put extra anti-wrinkle cream on my face the night before we take photographs, hoping that no one will see the uncertainty and the anguish in my face.

This is not what we had planned.

On the bridge at Marathon Park, connecting the Washington State Capitol Campus to the homeless encampment, Megan pulls out her camera, sits down on the wood, and tells me to walk towards her. “It’ll look really cool,” she says. “Walk away from me and then turn around and walk back towards me. It's like an action shot.”

I slip off the sandals that I had worn to walk on the gravel path and pull on my heels. As soon as my foot comes down, the heel lodges in between two wooden planks and I pivot to avoid twisting my ankle. Megan doubles over laughing, as I do my best impression of a constipated flamingo and try to pull my shoe free. When it’s finally back in my hand, I announce—in my most dignified tone—that I will keep my sandals on.

We were supposed to walk at our graduation a total of three times; once in the procession, once when they called our names, and once in the recession. At my undergraduate commencement, we followed bagpipers into the ceremony, even though our mascot was the Viking and our school had no Scottish connection. It was loud and satisfying and extra in every way.

In my favorite picture, I am leaning against the railing on the bridge, looking out at the water. Still, quiet, and gentle, there are no waves in Capital Lake, but I can see the farther along to the port. The waves there hit angrily against the docks, as though they understand we are all stuck with our heels in rotted planks. On some days, I feel like the waves are going to drown me. On other days, I am a wave and I just want to scream.

I decide that I want to stay on that bridge with one foot dug deep into the ground. I want to stay in the moment when there is excitement, even though it’s tied up with anxiety and uncertainty. I have been paying attention for too long to think that what comes next will make me feel any better than what I feel now.

As we approach the fourth hour of grinning in front of a camera, the sadness and exhaustion becomes palpable. We plan to visit our college campus last, understanding it will be the most difficult place to take photographs. Neither of us want to change again, so we walk across the campus in our gowns and master’s hoods. As we pass through Red Square on our way to the longhouse, a couple walks past us and says, “Congratulations.”

In preparing for the moment I thought I would have, I practiced walking in my dress and imagining my family in uncomfortable, plastic chairs. I tend to mistake my pride for arrogance and my accomplishments for boasting, so I did not tell my family that I was pursuing my graduate degree until I was nearly done.

We take another two hundred steps and then I say, “Stop.” I run forward, put my camera down, and start recording. “Walk with me,” I tell Megan.

Laughing, we strut toward the camera with our academic accomplishments hanging off our shoulders. I feel the cobble beneath my sandals and the tight pull of my master's hood against my neck, grounding me to the path I will not walk in two weeks. I look at the way Megan’s gown flies behind her like a superhero’s cape. Her laughter has faded, replaced by a resilient stare and a soft smile, as if to say,

This whole journey has been our walk. You cannot take it from us.

My professors open our next class by talking about the bridges that we will build in our careers as public servants. I think about our gowns and our caps and our capes and our hoods and our masks and our hand sanitizers and our heels catching in paths we chose to take and our friends who walk with us and wait for us and I look back at the waves and I laugh and I whisper,

You cannot take this from us.


Caitlin Upshall holds a B.A. in English from Western Washington University and a M.P.A. from The Evergreen State College. Her work has been published in OyeDrum, The Sweet Tree Review, Entropy Magazine, and others. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and most things relating to dinosaurs.


Kathleen Frank, a Santa Fe landscape artist, was raised in Northern California. Family travels exposed her to a diversity of cultures and artistic styles. She earned a BA in Fine Art/Design from San Jose State University and Certification in Art Education. In Colorado, Frank taught art and studied woodcarving. A printmaking program at Pennsylvania State University led to a Master of Arts degree. She co-founded the Printmakers Studio Workshop of Central Pennsylvania. During this time Frank taught printmaking and costume design at The Greer School. She began a gradual shift to painting. Frank was a founding member of the Farmland Preservation Artists of Central Pennsylvania. Frank painted the land around her - the farms of Pennsylvania, California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains by the family vacation home, the Marin County scenery of her childhood between the mountains and the sea and now the colorful, uniquely rugged landscapes of New Mexico. She travels throughout the Southwest, photographing vistas for future paintings, catching light and pattern, a glimmer of logic, in all the strangeness and beauty. Publications have featured her work in articles/cover art, including Southwest Art, Western Art Collector, Cowgirl Magazine and The Santa Fe Travel Insider. She has had numerous exhibitions, including Jane Hamilton Fine Art, Desert Caballeros Western Museum, La Posada de Santa Fe, Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and the Susquehanna Art Museum. Her work is in the collections of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, Arizona and the Pattee and Paterno Library, Pennsylvania State University, College Park, Pennsylvania.


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