Each year around this time, as spring gives way to summer, young men and women all over the country line up in processional formation to march out onto a stage or an athletic field for the last time as students and later, to march out for the first time as graduates, putting behind them twelve years of grade school study and usually a few years of kindergarten as well. It is a day of joy for the students and parents, mixed with a small degree of sadness at the end of a long road travelled together, arriving at an intersection where their paths will diverge forever into new directions.
This morning I arrived to take part in one of these ceremonies, not as a parent or faculty member but as a board member. Since my own son just completed the second grade, it will still be some time before I will sit with the parents watching their children complete what is no doubt the biggest milestone of their young lives. Of the four groups represented there today, the graduates, the families, the faculty and the board, I considered my role to be the least important in this particular ceremony because I was not nearly as invested in this ceremony as the others who were there. The students had just completed the long journey of tasks and tests to arrive at that day; the parents had paved the road ahead of them to allow them to make the trip and the faculty had cheered them on and given them the tools to get to the finish line. This was their day and I was just proud to be a willing observant of all they had achieved.
The school, a medium-sized private academy that focuses on giving students a first-rate education in an environment based on Christian morals and values, produced its 42nd crop of young adults armed with the knowledge, abilities and optimism to go out into the world and make an impact on it. It has the distinct advantage of housing all twelve grades plus the K-level classes on one campus and in many cases, students might go the entire way through school together, sharing the same common experiences and building a multitude of memories as they go. They become comfortable around each other and bond in ways that ensure deep and lasting friendships that go way beyond the doors of the school.
I arrived early for a board photograph and got to spend a few minutes watching the graduates get their last class picture made together, enjoying the affectionate way they teased each other, the laughs they shared and the hugs they exchanged with some of their teachers who happened by. Despite the kidding around, there was an underlying seriousness about them as each one no doubt was pondering the importance of the moment and knowing their lives were about to be changed forever. I’m sure a few of them, standing under the trees that shaded the area, looked out down the long sloping hill towards the playground they had once played on and the football field where they had spent many a fall evening and thought about the second home that this place had been to them, some of them since they were toddlers. Perhaps in their minds they heard once again the happy sounds of children laughing or the roaring cheer of a crowd as a touchdown was scored and maybe they experienced for the first time in their young lives what nostalgia felt like.
It was a time for memories to be shared, not just among the students but among teachers, alumni and others associated with the history of the school. A teacher, obviously loved by her graduating seniors stopped in the hall to exchange laughs and a few memories about another graduation many years ago with a fellow board member who was once her student. For some of the teachers, the memories go even deeper, especially those who had taught here for so long that they have now instructed multiple generations of students in the same family.
I spoke to my son’s teacher and thanked her for all she did this year to instruct him and to help him achieve all A’s and a very high score on his annual skills test. More than that, his second grade year had been memorable for him because he had a great teacher and strong friendships among his classmates. He was already on the road to making good memories that he would some day look back fondly on. I also spoke to his first grade teacher, one of the only teachers still there that I can remember being on the faculty when I attended the school (though not as one of her students!). She will always have the distinction of having pulled my son’s first two teeth and in her forty-plus years of teaching, she has pulled hundreds of loose teeth, being a participant in one of the first rites of passage children make in the process of growing up.
A few of us commented that it was likely she had pulled more teeth over the years than our local dentist had and she apparently has a technique that led to the children trusting her to do it over their own parents. This year, when he had another one about to come out, I emailed his current teacher and asked her to please let him go to his former teacher if the need arose for extraction. She was more than happy to let him do so as it turned out she too had once been a student of “Miss Gail” and had participated in the same ritual. Every school has its traditions but I doubt many have one quite like this one. It says a lot about a teacher that we entrust them not only with our children’s education but with their teeth as well.
The hour arrived to begin the processional and we all went in and took our seats as the 19 graduates of the class proudly marched in, one at a time, and to their place on the stage for one last performance. Speeches were made by the top two students and songs were sung by one talented graduate while two of her classmates accompanied her on the guitar and the piano. There were moments of joy relived and bittersweet exchanges from teachers, parents and grandparents. They were recognized for their achievements over their long years of study and through a video filled with images of their school years, we became participants in their memories of school, from their earliest years to their final weeks. While I suspect the images and memories tugged at the heartstrings of the graduates, I have no doubt that the parents were feeling this in a much stronger way.
With pride on their faces, they sat together, the parents, grandparents and siblings of those who wore the robes and tassels of a graduate, no doubt wondering what happened to their children who were suddenly replaced by these young men and women dressed in blue, sitting almost serenely on the stage as they waited for their names to be called. I suddenly had a flashback to this same time two years ago as I watched a similarly dressed group of students march their way out and onto this very same stage. This group was quite different though because most of them were barely three feet tall and when they sat in their chairs, their feet didn’t touch the floor. My son was among them, waiting to receive his diploma, feet swinging as he went through his own rite of passage from the fun and play of kindergarten to the beginning of his own twelve-year journey through grade school.
“I present to you, the class of 2022″ the Headmaster had said. “Enjoy this time and enjoy them now because in twelve short years, these little legs, these little feet, will be touching the ground and they’ll be on their way”. That really brought it home to me how short this time really is and that what seems like a very long time when you are going through school is really not that long at all. Suddenly, the year 2022 did not seem so far off after all and God willing, in just ten years, I’ll sit where those parents today were sitting, watching my son finish the journey through school and begin his next journey, on the road to something else.
I hope he and his classmates will also have a treasure chest full of good memories, fun times, crunching for exams, cheering the football team (I haven’t resigned myself to the fact that he might be playing on the football team just yet) and adding to the rich tapestry of memories, traditions and achievements that have, over time, become the place we were in this morning. Today we were all part of those memories, those of students today and yesterday, those of teachers who have put another year behind them and who look towards another one ahead, those of parents coming to terms with their children’s evolution into adults and those of people like me who are suddenly a little more aware of what is occurring right in front of my eyes each day.
As they move their tassel from one side to the other, they transition into the world of adults and for each one of them who marched out of that building today and to those who are marching out all over the country, a future lies in front of them, full of choices, decisions and life changing events. The best wishes of their parents, teachers and friends will go with them and hopefully they know that God will be there by their side to help them navigate the road of life and I know that they will succeed. I hope I remember to tell my son this in ten years….better yet, I hope I remember to tell myself.