Graduating from the School of Life

Last year, for the first time, I submitted a little item to the “What Where When,” the printed guide to activities at Burning Man:

Graduates of the School of Life/BRC Campus: Your diploma will not be mailed and must be picked up in person. Clothing and student ID optional. Please note that your attitude may determine what field of study is listed on your diploma. Brought to you by the Happy Spot.

Barry did legwork while I lettered

Then I sat down at my computer and designed a tongue-in-cheek diploma. At the top, below the name of the school in elaborate Blackletter (School of Life, Black Rocky City Campus)  was fancy script that read, “In recognition of Ass-Kicking Attainments Achieved on the Playa and by virtue of the Authority granted by the Citizenry of the State of Insanity…” It featured a book-of-fire border with tiny images of the Man, an official seal that read “Incendo ergo sum” (I burn, therefore I am), and the signatures of four “trustees,” one of whom was Sawyer B. Hind, Janitorial Staff Representative. I printed it on parchment, and from a distance, it looks like a real diploma.

My plan was simple. I would set up a table in the middle of the desert, and if anyone came by, I would hand-letter their name and field of study on a diploma. I thought I’d hand out a few to passers-by and give the rest to my friends.

With the help of Barry and my friend Sparkle, I set up the table and started lettering, chatting with the first people who stopped by. People just kept coming, and a line formed. I was focusing intently on each person and the lettering, because I didn’t want to make a mistake and throw away any of the diploma blanks. All of a sudden, I looked up, and to my surprise, there was a line of people, waiting in the hot sun, that stretched all the way to the Man!

I had completely underestimated the importance of the diploma in our culture.

The line

Needless to say, I ran out of diplomas. Not only that, but after three hours of non-stop calligraphy (the event was scheduled to be two hours), my neck and shoulders were cramping. Three fingers on my left hand had gone numb and stayed that way for a couple of days. We had to take down names and email addresses of all the people who were in line when the diplomas ran out.

I have published below my list of the graduates and their fields of study, a priceless tribute to the creativity of the Burning community. Each one is incredibly meaningful to the recipient. “This is so beautiful — I want to hang it up at work,” said one woman, who had initially written her Playa name and then crossed it out and wrote her full name. I lost count of the number of people who told me they were going to frame theirs.

Barry helps Zeke at the photography studio

While I was lettering diplomas, my photographer friend Zeke set up a studio and took portraits of the “graduates.” When I saw pictures of happy, proud diploma-holders wearing a velvet-trimmed Doctoral graduation gown, I felt both happy and sad. I’d saved it from the estate of my recently-departed brother, Stevie. I know he would have loved the whole project and Zeke’s pictures.

What had inspired the whole project was the theme for Burning Man 2011: Rites of Passage. When I heard about it, graduation was the first thing that came to mind. I thought it was something that everyone did, that everyone could identify with. I was stunned when many of my “graduates” admitted that they didn’t have a diploma, and they felt incomplete because of it. I was giving them something they really needed.

One man became very emotional, almost tearful, when I handed him his diploma. “It was such a long line, and after I waited for a while, I thought about just walking away,” he told me. “But that’s what I always do.” He admitted that pattern in his life had prevented him from completing many things, including school.

“If I can’t stand in sun long enough to get to the head of this line, I can’t finish anything,” he said. He carefully rolled up his new diploma, proof that he could change his attitude and maybe his life.

Sparkle’s photographs are below. She’s been a fantastic people-photographer since high school, when she edited the yearbook for three years in a row. Be sure to click on the thumbnails to see the entire image.

The list of 2011 graduates with their amazing fields of study is at the bottom, below Sparkle’s photos.

This year, in keeping with the Fertility 2.0 theme, I plan to hand out birth certificates. Maybe I can even find some additional calligraphers, so my fingers won’t go numb.

2011 Graduates, School of Life, Black Rock City Campus
Agent Awesome (Divine Omnipotence)
Aida (Desert Dancing)
Airen (Self Reliance)
Andrea (Photography)
Archimedes (States of Consciousness)
Big Barry (Expansion)
Bign “T” Dawg (Dust)
Carlos (Kosmic Sillyness)
Celcius (Optimism)
Charlie (Indecision)
Cheeky Monkey (Cheeky Antics & Monkey Business)
Citizen Cain (Playa Anthropology)
Daddy Naha (Pimpin’)
Daniel (Effigy Combustion)
Dave (Happiness)
Desiree (Indecision)
Dust Bunny (Playa Fashion)
Dustin (Rambing & Wandering)
Emily (Playa-tology)
Enabled (Mindscape Reconstruction)
Fred (City Planning)
Greg (Hard Knocks)
Halcyon (Rejoicefulness)
Hot Cheeks (Brass & Leather)
IC Bill (Freedom)
IC Jon (Makn)
Jeremy (A-Playa-d Chemistry)
Jo-John (LOVE)
Joshuasca (Musical Shamanism)
Julian (Freedom)
Keith (Astral Relocation)
Kendrick (Hitchhiking)
Kitty (A-playa-d Physics)
Lauren (Journeys)
Lawrence of AA (Revolutionary Theory)
MacGyver (Mad Science)
Mare (Transformation)
Margot (Human Identification & Kiffing)
Marie (Art Appreciation)
Mark (Sarcasm & Sincerity)
Maynard (Applied Resources)
Meps (Transformation)
Michael (Love Muffins)
Mike (Fire Science)
Mona Lisa (Smiling Arts)
Monicat (Evolutionary Spiritual Energy)
Nevo (Trouble)
Nora (A-playa-d Improvisation)
Persepio (Discovery)
Pumpkin DD (Ability to Love)
Rachel (Humanism)
Rebecca (Expectations)
Rich (Phaleontology)
Roger (Meandering)
Ronk (Wildlife Restoration)
Roto (Accepting Inefficiency)
Roxana (Emotion)
Rumbler (Seeking)
Samantha (Happiness)
Shawnamenon (Cunning Linguistics)
Sherpa (Fire Performance)
Shorty (Aplayad Visionary)
Sparkle (Rejoicefulness)
Sparkles (Slutchanics)
Switch (Playa Ichyology)
Tallie (Adaptability)
Tiphaine (Serendipity and Kiffing)
Vishna (Exploration)
White Feather (Geology)
Wiggy (Bringing Love from the Sky)

20 thoughts on “Graduating from the School of Life

  1. Thank you so much for your participation in BM. We loved this & will definitely check it out this year for our Birth Certificates. You’re much appreciated for your work!

  2. Love this idea! I am a calligrapher and will be at the burn this year. Please let me know your plans and I will come help write birth certs!

  3. I was one of the ones that didn’t make it to the head of the line. I love that you don’t always get what you want and being there with the people that did “graduate” was a lot of fun. Next time holler before your shoulders hurt and I will give them a massage. Birth certificates are a fabulous idea. Who is going to do the spanking so we take our first real breath and then cry to the world?

  4. Absolutely Love It! A lot more fun than the degree I’m working on!

  5. Those are beautiful! What a great idea! You really touched a lot of people.

  6. This is fascinating. I have noted how many people see my degree as more impressive than the way I see. What I see as important is the field: communication. (My idea of “communication” differs from the experts’, though. The experts want me to communicate how that sky is blue, not full of the clouds and lightning you know you see. I want to tell you how to get through the storm, use the rainwater, and maybe figure out how to use the lightning for power.)

    The idea of a birth certificate also fascinates me. In my case, I know the date, time and place where the “real” me came into being.

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