Graduation is a time of evolution in a person’s life, a ceremony that marks the transition from one phase of life into another and this year is no exception. I recently spoke to a college graduating class with a message somewhat different than the usual one, a speech about looking back and holding on to memories as well as one about blending change with consistency. Evolution is about both; change that is necessary for renewal and consistency that ties one generation to the next.
Among my five first cousins, there are nine children, ranging from about 29 to 18 and this morning, the last of them graduated from high school. I remember when each one of the nine were born, newborn babies with their entire lives ahead of them and over nearly three decades, each in turn has taken that last step toward adulthood as they walked on stage and received a simple piece of paper that proclaimed them to be educated with the basic tools needed to go on to the next step of life. College awaited some of them and careers as each one found their way on the pathway of life.
It’s hard for me to imagine that it has been over 25 years since I made that walk and really closer to 30, or to recall anything that I was thinking on that searingly hot evening that we walked across the football field, surrounded by a sea of spectators and well wishers. I remember my parents and my brother were there and my grandfather drove down from Gainesville to attend. I remember a cake my mother made for when the rest of my family came over afterwards and I even remember the somewhat louder party that took place that evening at a friend’s lake house but I really don’t remember what I was thinking or if the gravity of the moment registered at all. I’m usually a lot better at holding on to memories than this.
What I did keep though was an old cardboard box, about a foot square and a foot deep and in that box is my senior year and graduation from high school. For years, it was on the upper shelf of my bedroom closet at my parents house, then in my bedroom closet of my apartment and for the past eleven years, it has been in the closet of our guest bedroom, tucked away in the dark on the uppermost shelf. Recently I was looking for something in the closet and came across the box and I took a few minutes to look through it.
The first thing of course was my cap and gown, the gown folded into a 12 inch square with the cap and tassel laying across the top of it. Colored in a bright red, I am reminded how much I disliked it at the time. Our school colors were red and blue and each year, the classes alternated on the colors worn by men and women. That year, the girls in our class got to wear the deep blue and the boys had to wear the red. The gown is a bit wrinkled now but limited time in the light has preserved the original colors of both cap and gown and unlike many of my classmates, my tassel never hung on the rearview mirror of my car, to be washed white in the sunlight.
Beneath the garments is an assortment of items, each with some bit of significance. Every card I received from anyone congratulating me on my accomplishment was put in the box, each one signed by someone who cared about me or my family, many of them containing lengthy, handwritten messages, usually from some of the older members of my family and my church. A lot of those people are gone now but then, they were still alive and well and I was too young to really appreciate that fact. I treasure those messages now.
Wallet sized photographs in living color of members of my class, preserving the appearance of how we looked that year. No lines, no wrinkles, no gray hair, no lack of hair, though acne reared its ugly head here and there. A memory book that I had no clue what to do with so I stuck the pictures in there and there they have remained. A few of them, fortunately a precious few, have also gone, taken far too young and with so much unfinished. In my memory book and in my memory, they live on and endure.
A senior key that unlocked nothing, yet reminded me that I was part of a special group that came through our school but one time and never again. A key chain from the prom. Two school newspapers with articles I wrote. A program from our Senior Class Play that I got roped into participating in. My invitation and program from the graduating ceremonies. A handwritten note from my favorite teacher, the one who roped me into the class play and much more. To anyone else, the detritus of another time and place but to me, memories of a real time that seemed to last forever but was suddenly gone with a few steps to a podium and the symbolic switching of the tassel from the right to the left side.
Today and really, this month, a lot of young men and women have made this same journey. Their photographs are digital now and will never yellow or fade with age. Their notes to one another are also digital, here for the moment but soon gone on to wherever deleted text goes when its time is done. Memories change too though. Some grow stronger and deeper, some become fragments of distant thought that need help to come back to life such as when old friends get together to talk about past times. Some actually change from their original version depending on the skill of the storyteller and the amount of embellishment necessary to make myth become reality.
The one thing that never changes though is the significance of the moment; the ending of childhood and the beginning of responsibility and the future. I knew what I wanted to do when I graduated and I did it but the career I chose ended at one point and changed to something different and I was good with that. We cannot see into the future and often what we imagine for ourselves will change in ways we can’t see now but in hindsight, we realize it was only natural. So it will be for the graduates of the Class of 2013.
Some will go to college and pursue a degree that will hopefully gain them meaningful employment. Others will go to a technical college to prepare them for a specific type of job in the area they dream of working in. Still others will join the military and let the armed forces finishing shaping them and instilling them with the discipline and focus they may need while some will go right to work in a family business. Some just won’t know what to do or where to go but they will eventually figure it out.
Graduation is a bittersweet time, a mingling of joy at finishing something significant that is mixed with sadness at the prospect of trading a way of life that is known, secure and sheltered for one of new challenges and uncertainties. Consistency and change, mingling together, that can leave one anxious to move forward while simultaneously reluctant to leave but leave they eventually do, just like the baby bird whose nature compels him to eventually fly away from the nest and strike out on his own.
The graduates of 2013 face many challenges that must be overcome, just as each class that preceded them did, my own included. I really don’t remember what I was thinking that day, many graduations ago, but I’m glad I can remember the events that got me to that day and the many wonderful moments and challenges that I have experienced since.
If I had to give any advice to my cousin and to all graduates this year, it would be simply to remember the years before today and take those out and savor them now and then but never let them hold you to the past because the future, be it long or short, is always ahead of you and it is something to look forward to every day. Oh and it’s ok to change your mind at the last minute and drive 400 miles all night to go on senior vacation at the beach.
Good luck and best wishes to all graduates this year!