Appreciating the light of knowledge

A focus on Pitt’s special ‘Lantern Night’

I have made yet another trip back to my hometown, Pittsburgh. It was for a happier occasion than the other recent three: two for visits to my dear Uncle Irwin during the illness that finally claimed his life, the final one for his funeral and shiva. In contrast, this one was for a celebration at my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.
Every year, Pitt has a special ceremony to welcome its entering freshmen women. Called “Lantern Night,” it’s held on the evening before the day fall classes will begin, and starts in daylight but goes on until well after dark. Every girl — 1,300 this time — gets her own lantern, pre-fitted with a candle. All gather in a huge tent outside the school’s (non-religious) Heinz Chapel to wait until after the various welcomes and such are over, then enter, 18 at a time, to face 18 women with tall tapers, nine on each side of the main aisle, and formally receive “The Light of Knowledge.”
It’s a gorgeous sight when all these young women are joined outside by those who have come to witness this event, to sing with the men’s choir the “Alma Mater,” in the shadow of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, under night skies lit only by those newly acquired lamps of learning.
This was the 99th year for Lantern Night, Pitt’s oldest unbroken tradition. I went back to take part as a greeter of guests and to watch, because I never got a lantern myself! You see, I entered the university at the midterm, when there was no such ceremony. My first college day was in January 1951, and I graduated in June 1954 — 65 years ago. And, when someone in “high places” heard about this, I was invited to come and be a part of this year’s evening, and receive a much-belated lantern of my own!
It was amazing to sit in the back of the chapel, as those young women entered, carrying their lanterns. They were of every size, shape, height and color, dressed as they pleased, with skirts, pants, dresses. A few hijabs identified some, but for the rest — no way to know anything about their beliefs, or lack of same. For on that one night, each was just her unidentified self, an individual ready to begin the next morning on the educational adventure of her life, no matter what course that life might take.
I myself didn’t walk in that seemingly endless line to have a candle lit. But as I watched the parade, I offered a silent prayer: that for all of these marchers, the light of knowledge would shine bright, and that at the end of the longer journey each was beginning, she might find — as I have — that my alma mater gave me everything I needed for a productive and fulfilled life: by recognizing my ability to write, and by encouraging it; fine-tuning it in classrooms, on publication staffs, and through one-on-one conferences with people who truly cared. For giving me the skills and confidence to make writing my career, and finally, to use it in sharing what I think, and know, and believe in, with those who read what I write: people like you!
I came home richer for this belated experience — for watching what I never had myself as a freshman — and for the privilege, as a very senior alumna, to claim my own lantern, which will always be with me as a symbol of the glorious Light of Knowledge that has so fully illuminated my life.
It all ended when one of the staff planners said to me, “I’m going to carve your name on the Pitt Walk of Fame! I have a penknife, and I know how to use it!” We both laughed. But I wasn’t kidding when I told her, “This is no joke. God willing, I’ll be back next year, for Lantern Night Number 100!”

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