The Meaning in a High School Graduation for Parents and Kids

A few days ago our high school announced that graduation would happen on June 6th. It will be a virtual graduation ceremony and then students will drive to the school in their cap and gown with their families. Students will get out of the car in front of the school to receive their diploma from the principal. It will involve a lot of logistics by the high school staff and I suspect the police since it is a class of 400. As a parent I truly appreciate the efforts they are going to to give these kids a graduation. The announcement came out in the morning and later in the day a mom and her daughters delivered a cap and gown to our house. My daughter went outside to receive it and have her photo taken. She smiled and thanked them. When she came back in she tossed it on a table, where it still sits, and went to her room and shut the door.

I took a look at the cap and gown package, which included a note with some instructions about sending photos to the school. One line caught my eye. “Be sure to smile as you would for the photographer at an in person ceremony.” At that moment my stomach began to ache and I was immediately back at my own high school graduation for the first time in thirty-four years. It came flooding back to me and while I won’t tell my daughter this story until a later date, I knew right then that she needed to decide what she wanted to do about graduation because it is her graduation not mine.

I was a great student. That was my jam. I wasn’t valedictorian but pretty darn close. I gave a speech. It was a big day for me. Two months before my graduation, my father admitted himself to a mental hospital. That’s what they called it back then. My Dad-the man on the pedestal-was apparently bi-polar. It was 1986 and things were different then. My mother was a very proud person, and I’ve written before that she was a fighter not a talker. As far as she was concerned, we were going to soldier on. Nothing to see here. Certainly family and close friends knew the truth, but I did hear her say “heart problems” to more than one person. As we got closer to graduation day, it was clear that my Dad wasn’t going to be home yet, but my mother still wanted to have a big party. She wanted to it be “normal” and for me to “smile as you would for a real photographer” but it wasn’t normal.

My Dad was “released” from the hospital for four hours to come to my graduation with his “nurse”. He saw me give my speech and get my diploma. We took photos and then he went back to the hospital and we went home for a the graduation party. Upon reflection from today’s vantage point, I wasn’t very nice to my parents that day. At some point I left and went out with my friends. My close friends knew the truth, but others were curious about my Dad and his “heart problem”. How was he allowed out of the hospital with a heart problem? The shame and anger I felt as an eighteen year old girl that day is just as palpable now as is the love, perspective and understanding I feel as a fifty-two year old woman today. My parents were doing the very best they could at the time to give me a “normal” graduation, but that wasn’t a real possibility. Our life wasn’t normal at that moment. My father was in a really bad place and my mother was simply trying to hold it all together. I was a sad/mad/idealistic kid who wanted what I couldn’t have.

Here’s the thing, my life went on and I had a lot more ups and downs. I haven’t thought about my high school graduation in years, but when I thought about my daughter’s 2020 high school graduation, it all came back to me. Those feelings I had at the time were valid. I now know that people were doing the best they could and what they thought I wanted. I know that parents and teachers now are doing their best and doing what they think the kids want. The reality is the kids want something they can’t have. They want the graduation that happened for the class of 2019. So I’m going to let my daughter decide what she wants to do, which will probably be what the majority of her friends decide to do. She may send a photo in her cap and gown with a huge smile or she may not. She may choose to drive over and get her diploma or she may not. This graduation will not be normal and that stinks. She will be sad about it. She will also go on and she will have lots more ups and downs. I hope that if she has a child that they get to have a “normal” graduation, but I know they will be ok if they don’t. We don’t get to control what happens in our lives, but we do get to control our responses. While I hope my daughter wants to smile for a photo in her cap and gown, I can’t control her response to this curve ball. All I can do is be here for her and someday- long after her graduation -I’ll tell her this story. Right now what she definitely doesn’t need is me telling her “at my graduation……”

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