Eleven more days until graduation! A student has scrawled this joyful message across the classroom whiteboard in two-foot-high letters. I’ve spent the past few days substitute teaching for high school seniors, and graduation is the number one topic. Next week our clan gathers to celebrate my step-son’s graduation from medical school. All this excitement and preparation brings the memories tumbling back—memories of the many (26!) high school graduations I attended during my teaching career, including my daughter’s, and of my own graduations.
The kids I’m working with this week have to fill out a lengthy statement of their post-graduation plans before they’re allowed to “walk” (across the stage to receive their diplomas). I was touched and tickled as I watched the students scramble to complete this requirement. These are AP classes, so most of the students are college-bound. One young man, however, kept exclaiming, “I have no fricken idea what I’m doing next year.”
I feel for this kid. So many students reach this age with no plan for their future—beyond celebrating their freedom from high school. Once that victorious moment arrives, though, they cling to the edge of the precipice, afraid to leave that familiar ground and jump into the unknown. I remember how, after graduation, the ex-seniors of Bitburg High School would return to the school to hang out, only to be chased away by the office staff. “You’re done! Go!” Go where?
Me, I was ready to leap into my next adventure—four years in the army. I was more than ready to be all I could be, to get out of town, and to escape the shame of not going to a four-year college, like all my friends were doing. And yet, I remember that moment right after graduation when we all filed back into the small gym to turn in our graduation gowns. It was like one of those movie scenes; I stood google-eyed in the middle of a spinning blur of happy, crying, hugging, shouting people. And I said to myself, “What now?” It seemed surreal—how could high school possibly be done, just like that? In comparison, my two college graduations were a piece of cake. But then, I had a plan; there was no cliff-jumping when I left college—at least not without a parachute.
For my step-son this graduation is a victory, but I get the feeling he cares much less about the actual ceremony than his family does. His mind is on the next step, residency. But the clan will be there in force to cheer him on. It will be a fine party, worthy of the joyous occasion.
My daughter didn’t have that wall of family to cheer at her high school graduation, and that’s one of my greatest regrets. Her dad and I were in the middle of a very acrimonious break-up, and we sat on opposite sides of the auditorium. We were in Germany, and I couldn’t offer to house visiting family in the war zone that our home had become. And so I sobbed through her graduation ceremony alone, surrounded by big, boisterous clans. I was so proud of my daughter, who celebrated with her friends, despite the chaos at home. She had a plan—a plan that changed, as it turned out, but she’s still making me proud. She leapt into the unknown.
To the class of 2016, I wish you courage, joy, and happy landings.