Graduation signifies the ending of one chapter and the beginning of another.
The first time I was totally aware of the meaning of that statement was when I graduated from high school.
June 5, 1963 came so quickly. It didn’t seem possible our graduation day had arrived. But there we were marching across the high school track to the football field, through the junior honor guard, walking past our parents seated in rented wooden folding chairs , marching in time to the processional played by the high school band.
As we filed onto the stage built just for the graduation ceremony, we were happy everything was going as we had rehearsed it. After hearing stories of girls at past graduations walking right out of their shoes when heels got stuck in the grass, my friends and I were happy to hit the stage with our high heels still intact.
The sign to be seated was given and the class went silent. Even the rowdy students were on their best behavior; no one wanting to embarrass themselves in front of school officials, their parents, and friends.
Suddenly it became real. High school days were over. We were really graduating. A chapter of our life was closing, never to be reopened.
The graduation ceremony included the usual speakers reminding us of the highlights of our four years at Norwood High School and describing what our futures might hold. All too soon, we were standing one row at a time, walking across the stage when our name was called to receive our diplomas from the Board of Education president.
Then standing as a class, we completed our last official act, switched our tassels and it was over.
Afterwards, happy graduates milled around, smiling, and laughing. Flashbulbs flashed as cameras captured images of graduates posing with family and friends. Parents were proud and some of our mothers cried. We didn’t understand their tears.
Looking back on that night, the keynote speaker’s comments remain a blur. I wish I had paid more attention to his advice. Bet his talk shared some wisdom that might have helped me somewhere along my way.
Flash forward to 1986 when the keynote talk was my responsibility. The ceremony was no longer held on the high school football field. An increase in graduating class sizes had changed the venue several times; otherwise the format hadn’t changed in the twenty-three years since my graduation. The only obvious changes had transpired in my life. Marriage, motherhood, building a career, and trying to live a good life had kept me busy.
I wrote and rewrote that speech, struggling for weeks to find the right words to inspire and offer helpful advice to the Class of 1986. In the back of my mind, I wondered if anyone would be listening. Would the graduates be more aware than I had been? Would they know a most important chapter in their lives was ending?
Would they understand that after high school, classmates go their separate ways, scattering into the next chapter of their lives; some to college, some to the military, some moving away while others stayed close to home? Classmates marry, have families. Some are never seen again. Never return for class reunions. Some never step foot in their old high school ever again.
As president of the board of education, I had the honor of awarding diplomas to the Class of 1986. While serving on the board, I also had the pleasure of presenting both of my daughters with their diplomas. What special memories.
Another big jump forward to May 25, 2017 when my husband and I attended our granddaughter’s high school graduation at Deer Park High School. The graduation once again, came too quickly. It seemed our granddaughter went from five to eighteen at warp speed.
Watching her sing in the Senior Chorus at the beginning of the ceremony, I cried as they sang For Good, a beautiful poignant song from the Broadway musical Wicked—the untold story of the Witches of Oz. It fit the moment perfectly.
“It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend:
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you: have been changed for good.”
After the song, the graduation format unfolded with the usual components; the same familiar words. This time I listened more intently to what the speakers were saying. I find the older I get, the better I listen.
I especially related to the words of the keynote speaker and hoped the young people on the stage were listening. Richie Schueler, a proud native of Deer Park and Class of 1996 graduate of Deer Park High School had an impressive life resume. He was an engaging young man who spoke honest, insightful, and inspirational words. It was obvious he had immense pride in his Deer Park roots and attributed the foundation of his life to the community he grew up in. He seemed to be telling my high school story.
His words about the advantages of small high schools; having the opportunity to know everyone in the class, or maybe even the whole school, resonated with me and my memories of Norwood High School.
He asked the 2017 grads to take a look around at their classmates, to recognize after thirteen years together their life was about to change drastically. That night might be the last time they would ever be together as a class. He encouraged them to follow their passion, work hard, and never forget where they were from, and to proudly go and show the world just what a kid from Deer Park could do with their life. He then closed with their traditional school motto: It’s always a great day to be a Wildcat!
Then standing as a class, they completed their last official act. All together, they switched their tassels, marched out with big smiles on their faces and it was over.
Once again, I watched as graduates happily hugged their family and friends, and posed for lots of photos, this time photos were taken primarily with cell phones. Hugging my granddaughter, I told her we were so proud of her and her many accomplishments, but also proud of her eagerness to begin college, her next chapter. Happy she was so excited to be on her way to her future.
I sought out the keynote speaker to offer my congratulations on his wonderful words. As he thanked me, he laughed saying, “That was the hardest speech I ever had to write. I really struggled.”
“You ever have to do one of those talks?” Laughing, I answered yes and told him of my own difficulties to find just the right words. We both agreed it had been a proud moment in our lives.
Norwood and Deer Park are similar; both small schools, both filled with tons of traditions. How exciting to think of the graduations happening all across the nation with millions of graduates, parents and grandparents experiencing similar emotions, going through comparable traditions at their respective high schools.
Traditions tend to create a common bond among fellow classmates because high school is a special time. Classmates together in the same place learning to take baby steps to discover who they are, learning to make their own decisions, discovering new interests, learning to trust, and beginning to find their way.
Life after high school takes us in different directions, down different paths. Experiences after high school help polish and hone one’s goals, one’s skills, and one’s determination to succeed. Smoothing out the rough edges while we are figuring out what kind of person we truly want to become. Those experiences help to define our life.
High school graduation has always been a significant moment. As graduates everywhere close their first chapter and get ready to embark on an exciting next step, I hope they remember the foundation they received from the schools and communities they grew up in.
The carefree days before I graduated from Norwood High School remain inside me. Those years were some of the best years of my life. They helped prepare me to think for myself and to maintain an open mind as I ventured into a very diverse, complex world.
Reflecting on my life, three things stand out. Remembering who I am, where I come from, and what I believe.
Wishing all 2017 grads good luck in their future endeavors and hoping they will influence their world with good by remembering where they come from.
Ending on a Positive Note: The graduation photos and posts all over Facebook for the last few weeks have energized my spirit; given me new hope for the future of this country, this world. A new batch of bright, energized young people beginning their next chapter is cause for celebration.