Graduation season has come to a close now, and the above-said words have welcomed the last audience to the final pomp and circumstance. I went through the yearly routine, yet again, both on the bestowing end, at my school, and on the spectating end, watching one of my nieces.
I saw and heard mostly what I expected to see and hear. Somebody should write a satire on this day alone; it would likely spawn a rash of movie sequels: “Mortar Board III: The Deadening,” etc.
As far as the programs went, wishes were made, courage was infused, and thanks were returned in goodly measure. Impossible optimism and outrageous hyperbole were the touchstones.
Each class (like all the ones before it) was said to be the most remarkable ever tasseled, and was expected to achieve the most inconceivable ever attempted. It seems that, once be-gowned, even the most impenitent of knaves goes through a pixie-dust transformation. For those few hours, they all become intrepid geniuses, capable of extracting plutonium from Captain Crunch cereal, launching moon shots from backyard trebuchets, coining non-Indo European languages out of text glyphs—nay, nothing is beyond their grasp.
As cynical as they are, I suspect they mostly listened to their Nanos with hidden ear-buds, replaying “Double Rainbow Guy” on their secreted smart phones while all this was being said. Oh, some listened to the speeches, no doubt, and it may be that my own jadedness causes me to transfer it to others. If you’ve heard the enormities of graduation speeches as many times as I have, you tend to think what’s old to you is old to all.
As a chastening for the hardness of soul that I confess—though not a chastening visited upon me personally, but on another (and therefore making it something I could enjoy)—a speaker at one graduation I attended not long back actually voiced his opinion that all these speeches were boring. He then boldly stated that he himself could not remember one word that his own graduation speaker had said back in 1997, a speech delivered on that very stage. A mild round of tepid laughter was his reward.
Then, as an ironic God would have it, the very next speaker that followed him to the podium announced that he’d done the math, and that he, the speaker, had in fact delivered the aforesaid unmemorable graduation address back in 1997. A long round of gratifying laughter followed.
Nothing like that transpired this time at either of the events I attended. Instead, on the preliminary speeches went, followed by valedictories and salutations, with songs, prayers, anthems, and pledges scattered in here and there. The dispersal of degrees was next, as usual.
Families cheered when their children made it across the stage, raucous in a degree proportionate to how much trouble the child was in the raising, and how unlikely his diploma was in the achieving.
No air-horns were heard this year; and no stunts were staged. At one event, a kid wearing shorts and flip-flops under his gown slap-slap-slapped his self-consciously superior way across the dais and then back to his tiresome little seat. But that was the extent of the bravado. Nothing really remarkable.
Except for one thing.
Like her sister a few years ago, the niece whose high school graduation I attended delivered one of the addresses, as an officer of the class. And just as when her sister did it, I listened to high-minded words coming from the lovely voice of a girl who has gone through much more than most have in her short life.
The two girls lost their father when they were quite young, cheated of a fine man after a grisly battle with lung cancer, one that seized him in a shocking diagnosis—never smoked, but stage four when found—and then set about killing him in merciless inches over a two-year stretch.
They witnessed things grown people have a hard time standing, and suffered through the composite agonies of dashed hopes and threatening uncertainties. To me, it seemed that they were spared nothing, a fact that enraged me then, and from time to time still can.
And yet, there she stood, like her sister before her, as beautiful a person as you could ever meet—profoundly decent, hard-working, life-loving, and somehow—despite all—deeply faithful too.
Of course, this is all a tribute to their mother, my sister. Alone, with half of her heart gone, she has made them into what they are. She has stood when all she wanted to do was fall, gone on when she all she wanted to do was run away. And because she did what she did, I would break the jaw of any man who spread the lie that there are any better girls than these.
She had my parents of course, and my brother and me—extended family and friends—yes, all that; a “support group” they call it. But in the end, regardless of how many people surround such a person with help, honest folks know that those responsibilities are never truly shareable. One parent, many children: it’s a solitary path, and to walk it takes a stiff spine for facing a myriad of menaces and a strong stomach for bearing the bitter gall that must be swallowed daily.
Sometimes I think back to the time when their loss was at its height—when the terror of the days and years to come was unfathomable—to the time when my sister endlessly wondered if she could do and be what she had to do and be for her children.
Well, there was the answer to that question—standing in her cap and gown—like her sister before her—God-lit and wonderfully made. Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
And for the privilege of witnessing that, my dear friends, I was indeed an honored guest.