Today I graduated from the University of Oxford. It didn't go quite as smoothly as I'd envisioned, but somehow, despite trips and stumbles on the way, I officially have my Bachelor of Arts degree. Hooray!
The ceremony is a very solemn affair. It's held at the Sheldonian Theatre, a D-shaped building on Broad Street. For those of you who have a copy of The Bone Season, it's marked on the Sheol I map as the Old Theatre, just off the Rookery.
Most of the ceremony is conducted in Latin, because – in the words of the Vice-Chancellor – the university still upholds the same values as it did when it was established. Of course, it also means the people graduating don't really know what's happening for about eighty percent of the proceedings. This leads to many a minor slip-up: graduands getting up at the wrong time, awkward pauses when a response is expected, and nine year-old siblings getting bored in the gallery. There's also quite a lot of cap-doffing, smiling and bowing between speeches. It's very surreal. The graduands also enter the hall in what's known as 'crocodile formation'. You start off wearing the robes of your original status – for me, an undergraduate commoner, i.e. the lowest rank in the university – and change into your new robes about halfway through the ceremony, after you've been given the right to all the superpowers and privileges of your new degree, which include exciting things like The Power to Give Lectures. After that point we were permitted to put on our new Bachelor of Arts robes, which had fluffy white collars.
Of course, me being me, and the ceremony being an extremely solemn and ordered event, something went amiss.
When we arrived at college before heading to the Sheldonian, we were all supposed to sign the 'degree list' and pick up tickets for the ceremony. Now, this tiny little administration point had been flagged to us via email, but at no point did I twig its importance. It just completely slipped my mind. Only my mind. Nobody else's mind. When we got to the Sheldonian, my internal alarm bells started ringing when the Dean of Degrees came in and took all our names. Near the end, he said vaguely, '. . .and Samantha Shannon-Jones isn't here . . .'
'Yes, I am,' I squeaked.
The Dean of Degrees blinked. He looked again at his paperwork. He looked back at me. 'You must have been late,' he said, visibly puzzled.
And so the Dean of Degrees looked back at his papers and made a note and was gone. I shrugged it off and headed into the Sheldonian with the other candidates. We were seated, and the ceremony began. Laughter erupted when a group of students got up at the wrong time, earning deeply unimpressed looks from the Proctors.
The time soon came for the new Bachelor of Arts graduands to receive their degrees. Names from St Anne's College were read out, one by one. They got closer and closer to surnames beginning with S. My name would be soon.
And . . . they missed it.
Now, ever since the Dean of Degrees had thought I was late, I'd had a sinking feeling about what might happen next. But I'd also assumed that because I'd let him know I was present, he would have worked some kind of administrative magic and smoothed it all over. I felt a huge lump rise in my throat when I realised what had happened. I remembered the list I was supposed to have signed. I remembered that I'd never had a head for organisation. And I realised, with some horror, that I was about to go up and be given a degree by a university that thought I wasn't there. Tears welled up. My ever-prepared friend Richard handed me a tissue. Or five.
We marched in lines of four to the where the Vice-Chancellor sat with the Proctors. The proceedings continued as normal until Richard whispered to the Junior Proctor that my name hadn't been read out. There was a horribly long silence as the Vice-Chancellor, Proctors and Dean of Degrees put their heads together. They shot me little glances. This was, I could tell, not something they'd encountered recently – a student so utterly, hopelessly disorganised that they hadn't put their own name down for their own degree ceremony. For about fifteen agonising seconds, you could have heard a pin drop. Would they still let me graduate? Or was I disqualified for being a downright babulus? Then, finally, the Junior Proctor stood and said:
'Baccalaurei in Artibus – Samantha Shannon-Jones.'
And sat down.
And it was all captured on video for the DVD you could buy after the event.
After the ceremony was over, I had to sign my name quickly on a piece of scrap paper instead. The Junior Proctor was very nice about the whole thing.
Anyway, we all threw our hats in the air. No harm done.
And the moral of the story is: always read the small print. Always.