I love celebrations of all kinds. Birthdays are my favorite. They honor one person’s special day: the day they were born. Anniversaries are pretty important too. When I was eleven, I gave my parents a surprise anniversary party. Called up family members and even planned for my parents to be away for a few hours. But neither compares to graduations. Graduations are as special as birthdays. To graduate means to have accomplished something, gradually. Bit by bit.
Graduations are integral to me not only because I love celebrations, but also because I’m an educator. I have taught at the university level for five years and before that, high school for ten years. My approach to teaching high school was a little different than other teachers. I believed in building relationships and then maintaining them well beyond the person’s secondary experience. Well, this happened with two of my former students. We remained close throughout their undergraduate careers and ironically, in 2012, they both graduated within a couple of months of one another.
The first graduation was out of town. Seven hundred miles away. She used to babysit my daughters. She took them to the beach when I had to work. She and I would talk on the phone, text and chat about her life and sometimes my own. We became close. Almost friend like. My relationship with this student had grown to include her family. I knew I could call her mom and visit if necessary and I had become quite familiar with her two brothers. So, it was expected that I would be at her undergrad graduation.
“Should I walk?” she asked.
“Um, yeah…this is what we’ve all been waiting for.”
So my family, including our toy poodle drove from Jacksonville, Florida to Washington, DC to watch her walk across a stage and receive her diploma. It was May. There was no air conditioning. And the ceremony was slightly cramped. But there was no where else I would have rather been than sitting right there next to her older brother, a few seats from her mom, and not far away from her best friends and younger brother.
That night, we ate grilled chicken and enjoyed a few drinks. We listened to music from several decades. One time someone suggested that I might know her mother’s favorite song.
“How old do I look?” I asked.
“About 39-40,” one of them replied.
My husband gave me a side-eye, next-time-you-won’t-ask glance.
“I still don’t know that song,” I mumbled to myself.
We had a good time. The next day we awoke and watched President Clinton give the commencement speech. I was convinced he was speaking directly to me. That evening we had dinner at a relaxed DC lounge. The red décor felt trendy and the food choices even trendier. But again, my family was among hers, dining and celebrating her accomplishments. We had a good time.
My other former student and I have a different bond than the first. This particular girl had grown so fond of me that in high school she began referring to me as her godmother. Other high school students thought we were blood related. After high school, she would occasionally call on me when she needed advice or just an ear. One time we met for “lunch” to catch up. Eight hours later, we had relocated to another restaurant and finished talking and laughing. Her graduation was two months later in Florida.
“Godma,” she started, “I only have one ticket for you.”
“That’s okay. I’ll leave the girls in Jacksonville and D and I will just drive down.”
I could tell she didn’t feel great about it, but my husband isn’t fond of graduations anyway and the girls had already sat through one a couple months back. It was a win-win. Well, sort of.
My husband dropped me off at the graduation. Her sister met me at the arena’s doors. I hadn’t met her in person, ever. Shaped exactly like my student and their mother, I followed her wide hips and skinny waist up the first set of stairs and then to the hall where everyone else was seated. Her mother sat farthest, then her niece, her father, and her sister. I sat down. They each smiled and genuinely greeted me. They knew the role I had played in their daughter’s, sister’s, aunt’s life. No one said a word after that.
I texted my husband. This is different. No one is speaking to me. We continued a conversation until commencement began.
At this institution, summer graduation meant everyone was graduating. Undergraduates. Graduates. Every discipline. The graduation lasted four long, Florida summer hours. At least the air conditioning worked. And at least my smartphone had a signal.
I sat there. First, I played Words with Friends. Then her sister began a conversation about her ex-husband and how she deals with her daughter and school work. After I caught up on all of my games, I posted to Facebook about my ensuing boredom and the inefficiency of college graduations. Really and truly, no graduation needs to be four hours. Her dad went to order some concession stand fries.
“Here, try it,” he first offered.
“Oh. No thank you,” first polite decline.
“No, you should have one,” second offer.
“No. Mr. — I don’t want any fries,” annoyance building.
“Dad,” the sister interjected, “She don’t want none.”
Wow, I thought. He is just as controlling as my former student once described all of these years. Unbelievable.
Eventually, my former student would walk across the stage. Her family and I would scream and holler her name. The graduation would continue for another hour or so. Afterwards, I would awkwardly ride in the mini-van with her family.
“How are the girls?” “Oh, they must be big now.” “In high school?” “That’s awesome.”
My husband would meet me and her family and friends for the cliché, graduation dinner.
But I loved it.
In my eyes, this is what life is all about. Living life. Accomplishing goals. Graduating. The way I see it, whether you attend a formal institution or not, we’re all graduating. Moving on to the next level, whatever that means for each of us. Institutions have just mastered the art of pomp and circumstance. Any of us can graduate from anything, at any time. And any of us can and should celebrate that accomplishment, whether walking across a stage or not.