I stuffed my purse with tissues for my trip to San Francisco last week. I expected to be a teary mess as I watched my youngest child walk the stage at her college graduation.
But I didn't get weepy because I didn't get to see it.
The commencement at San Francisco State was oddly anticlimactic, long on accolades for administrators and professors, but short on praise for students who'd clawed their way to graduation through years of cutbacks and chaos.
Seven thousand students earned degrees, but most of them skipped the free stadium ceremony and bought tickets instead for their private departmental celebrations. I realized why 90 minutes into the convocation, when the back-patting speeches finally ended.
Then students were asked to rise en masse, flip their tassels and line up for the stage procession. It was a cattle call of purple-gowned grads. Their names weren't even announced.
In the stands, stunned families were being herded toward the exits, clutching overpriced leis and tapping on cell phones, trying furiously to reach their grads through the cellular gridlock.
I followed the crowd and had reached the campus parking garage by the time my daughter got her moment in the spotlight. I had to settle for a text message telling me she was officially a graduate.
It was a fitting ending, I suppose — impersonal and uninspiring — to my daughter's long, hard slog through a college system that's grown accustomed to regarding its students as little more than spreadsheet stats.
My daughter entered college four years ago, just as the state's economy tanked. Funding cuts meant Cal State's tuition jumped and course offerings shrank. That turned every semester into a panicked race for crowded classroom spots.
But I realize, looking back, that hardship taught her something. She turned from starry-eyed romantic to grim-faced tactician — begging, crying, refusing to leave, bombarding professors with emails to get the classes she needed.
She had to beat long odds to graduate with the Class of 2013. Only 12% of San Francisco State students earn a degree in four years, and four years was all her family could afford.
So the night owl managed to ace 8 a.m. classes; the party girl learned to enjoy "happy hour" with books, not drinks, in the library; the Valley kid who'd never taken a bus made friends with homeless people on her late-night Muni rides from campus to her Market Street apartment.
And the student whose high school teachers might have considered her a slacker learned to nourish her passion for literature and her talent for writing.
I won't forget the tearful phone call I got from her last fall, when she went online to check her grades after a six-course, 18-credit semester, heavy on writing assignments. "Mom.... I .... got ...all ... A's," she gasped, her words choked by sobs. She kept jabbing the refresh key on her laptop, convinced it couldn't be real.
It wasn't a mistake, just a message that her hard work had mattered.
I didn't get teary until we hung up and I thought about all the years we had spent arguing over homework. Off on her own, without a nudge from mom, the slacker had become a scholar.
And if I needed proof, it came last month, in another phone call, as she headed back to her apartment from the college graduation office. "Mom, they gave me this special rope to go with my cap and gown, but I'm not sure how to wear it."
That special rope was an honors cord, for graduating magna cum laude.
If the official commencement was maddeningly impersonal, the unofficial gathering of creative writing graduates was anything but. They celebrated last week by reading personal essays in front of friends and family in a tiny Humanities classroom lined with poetry volumes.
If you buy the dispiriting rhetoric of this graduation season, their degrees won't help them much in an era of rising student debt and shrinking job prospects.
A recent Brookings Institution report suggests that college is a bad investment for students who don't attend top-tier schools or pursue careers in lucrative fields, like technology or science.
If you judge the value of a college education by its financial rewards, I suppose it's true that creative writing majors like my daughter may have struck a very bad deal.
But there are more ways than money to measure the worth of a university degree. Listening to that bunch of talented students — outliers in a technocrat world — brought that home for me.
They read from laptops, journals, neatly organized binders and messy handwritten scraps. They wrote of hangovers, suicide attempts, pet ponies, troubled relationships, abuela's favorite meal.
There was the O'Brien girl from Modesto, one of 14 kids, who worked full-time at a restaurant while pursuing her studies.
The middle-aged man in the bowler hat who had finally satisfied his schoolteacher parents by earning a college degree.
The milky-voiced poet in a sweater set, chignon and pearl earrings was followed by a girl with spiky hair, baggy pants, multiple tattoos and giant holes in her earlobes.
They were wonderfully diverse and clearly talented. Their stories took me back to my own solitary wonder as a college student pondering life's mysteries. I couldn't help but envy the freedom and safety they felt in this writers' community.
That evening stands as a portrait for me of the value of a college education that goes beyond a paycheck. It isn't just about absorbing knowledge or building a resume, but about pushing limits, discovering talents, transcending boundaries.
And I hope I can call on that memory in the months to come, when I'm writing checks for college loans and paying an unemployed daughter's rent.