Fifth Grade “Graduation” and the Sweat Suit Mafia

At our school, we celebrate fifth grade graduation, which is less pleasant than attending a “baby’s first birthday party.” Both events sometimes come off as photo ops, designed for the adults instead of the kids theoretically honored… but at least you don’t have to dress up for the birthday parties.

Nevertheless, my son Austin “graduated” from fifth grade last night, so we put him up in a starched shirt and tie and watched from the wooden church pews as they sang songs that caused the eyes of the moms around me to mist. It’s not that I’m not sentimental. Rather, my moments of nostalgia do not follow a schedule or show up on demand. They might seize me while doing laundry, when I realize the grass stained pants I’m folding are too small. (Already? Didn’t I just buy them?) Or, when I set the table, and realize that I won’t be putting five plates down forever. Or, when I take a sip of water out of a Dixie cup (the taste of childhood, right after toasted cheese sandwiches) – or get a whiff of the clothes Naomi was wearing that still hold the scent of her loving African orphanage. Or when my oldest daughter who seemed to say her first word yesterday (“lello” for the color) is now asking me to borrow my shoes.

In other words, I’m incredibly sappy, but the ceremonies – with their awards and attendance records and the camera-toting cavalcade of parents – simply don’t do it for me.

So last night, I sat there and clapped at the appropriate times. People smiled. Moms grabbed Kleenex. Teachers cried. I was supposed to feel some sort of combination of sadness about childhood slipping away and melancholy over old photos showing the same kids in kindergarten… a lot shorter and pudgier and wider-eyed. Still, I felt nothing.


My friend Tabby was one row in front of me. She’s a parent of the kid my son hated for the first day of kindergarten because he hit my son’s desk one too many times. On the second day, they discovered they both loved Legos and they’ve been best friends ever since.

Adult friendships are not easy to come by. When I’ve lived in more transient communities – like Ithaca, NY, Philadelphia, or Manhattan – adults seem to easily come and go from people’s lives, so striking up a friendship in the community was no big deal. But in small rural towns, your friend set is pretty much established by strict parameters – you’re friends with fellow church congregants, old friends with whom you attended high school, or co-workers.

I didn’t expect to be friends with Tabby. Yet, as she and a few of the other moms compared notes about fieldtrips, reminded each other about homework, and arranged countless playdates and sleepovers, a friendship was born.  In addition to Tabby, I met Kris, Monica, and Lauren. After school drop off, we’d go to a local gym and talk on the treadmill, causing one of our husbands to coin the term “Sweat Suit Mafia.” The name stuck though we didn’t wear sweat suits, our commitment to exercise waxed and waned, and we — as far as you know — haven’t killed anyone.

Also, we’d go to lunch every week. Collectively, we’ve dealt with many issues over Jack Daniels pie at Square Market. (Almost every time someone ordered that dessert, another would invariably quip, “hold the pie.”) We’ve dealt with a washing machine literally broken more than it worked; struggles with diabetes; complications related to a child with hearing loss and eyesight problems; a birth; an adoption; conversations about government more intense than anywhere in DC; a husband deployment to Iraq; an African mission trip;  job changes, financial crises, shopping excursions, hand gun purchases, and conversations about discipline, sex, money, politics, and religion.

Yes, we’re all Christians, though we attend different congregations. This may seem like a total lack of diversity, however, sometimes southern denominational differences are harder to overcome than any real religious differences. This was best typified the time a Church of Christ neighbor realized we no longer attended his brand of church. “Well,” he said, “Isn’t it nice how we can all stand here in our yards, getting along even though you are Presbyterians?”

My husband, home during leave from the war, said, “Yep, we’re just like the Sunnis and the Shiites.”

Kris moved away, which almost dissolved the group.

The Sweatsuit Mafia may not agree on free-will or the five tenets of Calvinism, but we’ve stuck together over the years… barely. When Kris moved away, we went through a dry spell. She was more spiritual and nicer than the rest of us, and the group suffered in her absence. We did fewer Bible studies and the one we did pull together ended up disintegrating when I did some home construction. My painter, when he’d see us together looking over paint samples, would ask, “How’s the Holy Spirit study going?”

Last night, the “Mafia” was spread out all over the auditorium as we sat with grandparents taking pictures of our uncomfortably dressed children commemorating a so-called “graduation.” When all of our kids got an award for having all A’s, Tabby looked at me and whispered, “It’s good parenting.” Then, Monica’s daughter read a sentimental poem that caused parents around me to sniffle. My cynicism prevented me from listening to the actual poem, but I had a lump in my throat because it was Monica’s daughter who was reading it! Was that actual emotion I felt? Then, when Lauren’s son won the most prestigious award of the year – for demonstrating Christian values — all of the Mafia members burst into tears of joy and pride.

And it struck me.

The Mafia has provided so much more than latest copy of the Restoration Hardware catalog and details of the homework my son left in his locker. These ladies have enriched my life – and the life of my three children – more than they can ever know.

And it took an overly sentimental 5th grade graduation to help me really feel that gratitude.

Thanks, Kris, Lauren, Monica, and Tabby. It’s been a good six years… and I’m sorry I never helped you with collecting boxtops or organizing fruit sales.


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