Time sneaks up on you when you are a parent. One day you are changing your daughter’s diaper and the next she is on a stage being handed a diploma. You stand there applauding, tears streaming down your face and hoarsely shouting her name to ten thousand attendees. The principle shakes her hand with his right hand while giving her her diploma with his left hand.
It is strange and surreal. You would feel like singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof except you are too choked up to sing. Also, there is the constant drone of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” from the school orchestra. Still, you would sing it if you could, for you are filled with a powerful and bittersweet feeling. Your heart just aches for the love you feel for your child, now a woman.
Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he get to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday
When they were small?
Your heart also aches in sorrow, for the bridges of dependency you know you must slowly burn as your daughter to transitions into an adult. You want her to stay at home forever, playing video games, attending sleepovers and going to Girl Scout meetings. Instead, you realize that part of the parenting experience is behind you. You now express your love by letting her go. Now comes a time when love will look a little sterner and at times a little heartless. Every bird reaches an age when the parent unceremoniously kicks the hatchling out of the nest. So too do you realize that it is your solemn parental duty to do the same, perhaps not by suddenly changing the locks, but by sending your daughter out to get a real job, and to learn to do things like paying rent. Since she has elected to take a year off before going to college, she has to get a job to stay at home. After she turns eighteen, our daughter will start paying us rent, $200 a month to start.
When not overcome by emotion you sit there in the George Mason University Patriot Center, one of ten thousand attendees and are a bit mesmerized by the size of the crowd and the enormous Class of 2007. For our daughter Rosie is a graduate of Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia. To say she is one of many is to put it mildly. There are over seven hundred students in her graduating class. It will take a full hour for all the graduates to get their diplomas. Principle Tim Thomas’ arms will be sore for a week.
The number of graduates may be huge, but I am feeling wistful anyhow. This is the sort of high school graduation that I wanted but I never received. Instead of a huge auditorium, my class graduated at the Daytona Beach Kennel Club. Unlike my graduation, where a thunderstorm took out the lights for ninety minutes, this graduation proceeded like clockwork. And unlike my graduation where a fair number of graduating seniors smoked reefers in the darkness while they waited for the lights to come back on, at this graduation the mere failure of the men to wear black pants or the girls to wear a black dress and heels was sufficient grounds to be thrown out of the ceremony.
Yes, it may be corny, but an orchestra has to play “Pomp and Circumstance”. Of course, there has to be brief speeches by the principle, the class historian, the class president and the class valedictorian, none of which really inspires anyone, particularly the graduates. They are more focused on the all night party at the school that will follow graduation. Still, these things are necessary. It is how the reality of graduation sinks in. Anything less and the ceremony is stripped of its meaning and dignity. Still, these graduates are not without a sense of humor. Despite stern admonitions and a pat down of students before graduation, two inflatable beach balls were tossed among the graduates while diplomas were handed out. In addition, despite stern warnings not to do so, a few yahoos in the audience used their air horns anyhow. No graduation is complete without it turning into something of a popularity contest; you can judge a graduate’s popularity by the volume of cheers he or she gets when their name is announced.
Nonetheless, my daughter’s graduation was still deeply satisfying for this parent. I found myself crying at strange times, like when the orchestra struck up a tune from West Side Story but the graduates had not yet filed in. Perhaps it was the jet lag (I had arrived home from Denver, at 1 AM, and was up at 6:30 AM). Perhaps it was the wedding I attended the day before. (I was crying through that too.) On the other hand, perhaps through my daughter’s graduation I was vicariously experiencing the graduation I wanted, but was denied.
It was likely all these things, but mostly I was feeling obnoxious pride at my daughter’s accomplishment. She may not have been class valedictorian, but that was an unattainable goal among 700 plus students anyhow. For now, her proud father was simply awed that she had survived high school and eked out a better than B average. That is no small accomplishment in the 21st century and in a high school ranked 128th in the country. Despite her inexperience, my daughter adroitly dodged all the teenage minefields in front of her. She could have become drug addicted, hooked on tobacco, pregnant, in a car wrapped around a telephone poll or acquired some social disease. She rebelled by truly being different, even among her peers. Not many freshmen would join the Gay-Straight Alliance, or go on to be its vice president. While mostly she navigated below the radar of the preppy and popular, when she stood up, she did so for things she believed in: like civil rights for those whose lifestyle offended the majority of Virginians. How could I not feel pride in a young woman whose values are that well grounded?
As one of the speakers said, graduation is really the end of the beginning, as in the end of childhood. Now our daughter begins a strange and much different chapter of her life, where she navigates regularly to a job, does things she does not want to do for eight hours at a time, smiles when she does not want to, pays rent and learns to live within her means. Perhaps she will learn some other lessons, like what it feels like to be fired, laid off or to make a catastrophically bad choice that eluded her in high school. She will have that right in September when she turns 18. She tells me that one of the first things she plans do when she turns 18 will be to register to vote.
That is how we all learn, of course: by making choices and observing their results in the often nebulous minefield called reality. She is bound to stumble and she will have to learn how to recover by herself. Perhaps this year off from education will be the best education she will ever get. For the one course they cannot teach you in high school is how to navigate real life. Some things cannot be taught; they can only be experienced.
I expressed my confidence that she will make these choices wisely. I too must learn some new skills. I must learn to keep my lips buttoned and to give advice only when asked, and maybe not even then. Our daughter remains leery and cautious about engaging life, but she is not dysfunctional. She remains a nerdy, eclectic but sweet young woman, much like her parents. Her sense of caution will serve her well. She will sort it out in her own way. Her choices may surprise us and occasionally disagree with us. However, those choices will be authentically her own.
We have released the tether and she is unmoored. She is trying out the oars of her life tentatively. Ever so slowly, she will recede from our view.