I’m about to graduate for the third time in my life. Well, fourth if you count preschool, which I hear was quite an event, and the graduates apparently passed out harder that day than they did 20 years later as new bachelors of arts and sciences.
But the big three graduations, once completed, will represent such vastly different chapters in a life that they can barely be compared to one another. At Linsly, graduation is a most serious business. There is absolutely. no. throwing. of. hats. Diplomas will be revoked should hats be thrown. At least, that was the threat. A similar threat was made regarding graduation attitude and behavior. The event was somber, and we were expected to remain similarly focused and serious. It’s laughable, actually, because an 18-year-old is one of the worst examples of focus and the males in particular lack the developmental skill required to sit still for very long. Nevertheless, we graduated and kept our hats dutifully upon our heads and ate cake with forks and talked about higher education and academic pursuits. And it was a nice little bubble in which to exist, at the time. Had I known what college would bring–both great and terrible–I think I might have taken up a mantle of excitement and terror. But of course, the not-knowing is the deal in this lifetime. The not-knowing is the reason human beings do everything that we do. It’s why we work hard and love hard and act carefully and carelessly, and it’s why we have children and take risks and drink vodka and sail the Caribbean. It’s why we show the best and the worst of our species on any given day.
That’s a sidebar, though. It’s too much abstraction and reflection for a second paragraph, particularly one that recalls a high school graduation, something that signals not an end of any kind but merely a start, as all graduations do.
When I graduated from Eckerd, I cannot remember if I threw my hat. That particular moment escapes me, because as promising as my future felt when I sat in Linsly robes, it felt entirely different as I walked in sandals in the Florida sun towards a stifling gymnasium where my family waited with pride. College was hard. Not the academics. Once I accepted that I was not meant to be a scientist and gave up pursuits like biology and statistics, I flourished. No, International Environmental Law didn’t go down too smoothly either, but I found a calling in the field of Environmental Studies, a beautiful blend of politics and literature and art and science. But graduation from college had little to do with academics, for me. College was a wonderful and miserable time, and though I would look back and yearn sadly for my life in Florida for many years to come, the truth is that my life in Florida
I’m not sure how to finish that paragraph. During my four years at Eckerd College I came to know and love the dearest friends, a tiny handful of which would remain my dearest friends, who would stand beside me when I married my husband and hold my children when they were born. I would also love people who would hurt me so deeply that I would come to know sorrow and depression, who changed me so dramatically that I would never live another day without medication to control my moods. When I walked up on the stage at Eckerd College to collect my bachelor’s degree, my family sat in the audience, as did a boyfriend who complained that he had to be there, who used my credit card to buy his alcohol and told me every day that I was nothing at all, that I was pathetic and helpless and weak. And by the time I did cross that stage and smiled at my favorite professor as I passed him, I truly believed I was nothing.
And so my graduation from college felt very different from my Linsly commencement. Whereas before I could envision nothing but a vast horizon, as flat and open and gentle as a midwestern plain, Eckerd College’s graduation felt as though it channeled me into a deep ravine, a narrow path with walls so high as to be inescapable. Whatever lay beyond the ravine couldn’t possibly be worth the journey, but deep in the grip of an alcoholic abuser, I couldn’t see any path but the one I was already on, and anything that waited for me in the future was already tainted with sadness and suffering.
I wouldn’t ever find what was at the end of that dark gorge, though. Somehow I found another way out; somehow I clawed up the walls and escaped that particular fate.
It feels like a lifetime ago. There are moments when the comfort and presence of my husband and children and parents living next door squash the memory of that time into little more than a page in a photo album, a page in which all of the photos are half the size they once were, edges cut at odd angles and the occasional phantom hand left on my hip or shoulder because the scissors and hole punch couldn’t quite expel all of him from the picture. But I don’t ever open those albums because I have so many others filled with tiny smiles and faces that look like Shawn’s. And in the last 15 years, the weight of that life on my shoulders as I collected that diploma has evaporated, and now what I remember is my professor’s smile and wink, and my friends hooting as my name was called, and the looks on my parents’ faces that I know were there even though I couldn’t see them.
Eckerd College graduation caps were decorated with words and glitter and googly attenae. People wore bathing suits under their robes and passed out that night almost as hard as the 4-year-olds. I would like to go back and enjoy that time, to see an open plain instead of a cold, one-way trudge.
Now, at 37, as I graduate from Chatham University with an MFA, the landscape of the horizon looks unfamiliar but inviting. It’s not flat; I’ve no longer got a vague world of choices ahead of me. The purpose of graduate school is to narrow the focus, to choose one’s field. Still, the road is by no means cloistered or tight. One might say I’ve picked the region into which I will walk, but the terrain will vary over time, and I look forward to what I will see and do. And, as a late 30-something with two graduations and two kids under her belt, I’ve learned enough about life to know that great and terrible things await me out there, and after each challenge will come blessings.
It’s not like me to abandon humor when I write. I feel like we should take a break so someone can slip on a banana peel. This is uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, this graduation (though it has yet to happen) is my favorite. It’s the one that I paid for myself, the one where I earned nothing but A’s, the one where I alone pushed myself into success every morning at 5am. It’s the one when I get to envision my parents’ faces as well as the face of my husband as I walk across the stage. It’s the one when I get to listen for a tiny voice shouting, “Yay, Mommy!” And it’s the one where I know where I want to go when I take off my hood and gown, and whether or not I’ve thrown my cap doesn’t matter, because I have work to do. The work I want to do. And however that shakes out, I’ve got five faces in the crowd.