Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Graduate

Last weekend was pretty amazing. My niece, Jessica, graduated from high school in the same gymnasium where I graduated from high school 20+ years before. Even the robes were the same.  I checked her tag just to be sure, but no, it did not have my initials in it.
Class President, National Honor Society...

The place where I spent my adolescence is not much changed. The school buildings have been well maintained, as are most structures in town. The woodshop and agriculture buildings are still standing, off to the south of the gym, which in turn is south of the main school building.  They still have the weight "room" on the loft in the gym, an open-air place that doubles for gymnastics whenever a qualified teacher happens to get snagged in the teaching dragnet. And in early June, if you cross the street and go through the park to the West, you'll come to the city pool which has opened for summer and does so on the last day of school.

After the pomp and circumstance and the hour-long awarding of scholarships to three or four main students who sat at the front (my niece chief among them), the crowd disbursed to the front lawn for a reception.  Me, I felt skeevy. Like seriously skeevy. Here were several of my former classmates, with their children graduating and me having been absent for 17 or 20 years made them peer at me as through through a dirty windowpane. They could make out my outline but needed to step closer, clean the glass and concentrate in order to place me.  And trust me, those looks are not comforting looks. I wasn't a popular girl in high school and mostly I'm known in that community these days by the stuff I post on Facebook.  Those who recognized me really recognized my husband and said something along those lines. I'm glad that sort of thing doesn't bother him. We left pretty quickly, because the next day was set for a family barbecue and because I am terrible at small talk. I end up saying the wrong things or asking inappropriate questions or not saying enough and looking like I'm pretty snotty.

I love my niece and I won't comment on her life because it is uniquely her own, just as every single one of those 23 kids who graduated has lived an unique life. However, they have touch points in common with everyone who has graduated from DHS in the last 30 years or so- the curriculums, some of the teachers, the lockers and that spiral staircase. Even the stupid Current World Problems class. High school wasn't something I enjoyed or that I felt I had accomplished a feat when I was done. It was something I lived through, a thing I was proud to have endured. It was a place I had to go and it took a daily act of will to attend regularly.

Which I didn't. I stayed home and read book upon book upon book. I lived on Main street, right on the highway. My sister still lives there. Saturday in the gymnasium, I felt as I did when I was a kid: I was among the crowd, but not of the community.  A stranger in a strange land. I wonder how many of those kids who graduated feel the same?

If I could, I would tell them a few things, like how this isn't "it", how it gets better and that the choices they make in the next 5 years may define them- but also that change is possible at any given time. I didn't get my act together until my late 20s.  I would say that the world is vast and if they go explore it and avoid the chain restaurants of the world, then their perspective will broaden and change. I would say that I'm glad they made it this far either because of the help from their families or in spite of it, and that there isn't such a thing as starting over, only going forward.

I would say that grown ups don't know everything. And safety nets are an illusion.

But there is also good news. The only thing now holding them back is themselves.

Outside of this corner of the world, nobody knows you and that's a great thing and a scary thing at the same time. It's scary because you have to make your own way and it's great because you can. And because you truly can be whomever you want to be. It's like walking a tight rope between buildings. You don't have to go out there. If you do, you could fall.  If you make to the other side, there are probably lots of other tight ropes to go climb after that first one. The thrill is in learning to be a tightrope walker.

Every fall, my classroom fills with newly-minted tightrope walkers.  They are scared that day, the first day of school.  Not everyone in their classes got to go to college anyway- either by choice or by circumstance.  Many are there by the skin of their teeth. But they have each girded up their meager weapons and adventured this far. They come from all over and nowhere in particular. And suddenly, they are in a place where nobody can help them and they must make or break by their own devices. It's a trial by fire and as a teacher, I am always surprised, not surprised, and usually by the end of the year, in awe of how well they have fared- or how badly they have crashed and burned. But mostly I am humbled to get to watch, to set those trials and to help them sometimes through hurdles. I'm scared for my niece, a little bird about to fly on her own. I know that she'll be ok though, eventually.

For now, all is the same. She woke up this morning in her childhood home, a just-graduated senior with her whole future in front of her and the world at her feet. Hopefully, that is comforting and not overshadowed by the fact that things change and will continue to change. Someday if she goes back to the old high school gym and experiences the vertigo of seeing the familiar next to the not-quite-as-it-was, she will smile and clap wildly for whomever is graduating next.
My Great Aunt Sarah- a long ago graduate. And my great nephew, Sawyer. Class of 2036?

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