This day, when our seniors cross the stage to receive their diploma, always causes me to reflect on the meaning of Graduation. Meaning that I find monumental and liberating but also frightening and paralyzing. I watch with a degree of envy as the Class of 2019 steps out of the solid world they have known forever to embrace all the newness of tomorrow. From time to time I consider my own ‘graduation’, although a few years off, certainly on the horizon. I wonder, how will I step forward? How will I face inevitable challenges and happy surprises? All the unforeseen and unplanned despite my best calculations? I watch each high school senior mount the stage, study the surety in their stride, follow their upward gaze, listen as they cheer each other on, and wonder, can I emulate their optimistic adventuring spirit? Can I be that audacious? Smile at each dawn?
I am no stranger to our current world of evolving careers. Both my sons have college degrees not designed for their current jobs. My spouse’s working resume is a windy trajectory. Even my father made a turn after decades as a surgeon to history professor. And, although I came to my role as a teacher of high schoolers rather late, it is what I have done for 26 years, and most of those in the same classroom. It seems to be all I can remember doing, and possibly all I can do. Yet, from Freshmen to Seniors I witness students uncover their interests and strengths, struggle to gain skills and overcome obstacles, and in four short years step out into the unknown. I envy their pure enthusiasm to take the leap, so so ready to start their life beyond. Many if not all incur large debt, travel to schools they haven’t even visited beforehand or at best only once, leave the country for their dream school or just feel that way as they cross over a few state lines. Of course they must have trepidation, but not debilitating, not enough to stay behind. They venture with boldness.
Today their decorated caps show their visions, seeing far ahead to even their next graduation. To an outsider it may appear that these high schoolers are simply doing what is expected, and although that may be true for some, I know the students who walk into my classroom are motivated by something more. As I read through their college essays I am privy to their hardships and losses and triumphs and desires. They have held the hand of a failing relative, and now want to enter the health care profession to heal hurts or they have tasted that mix of adrenaline and panic on stage and plan to study theater arts and see themselves under the hot lights; there are those who have felt their own internal surge of joy while sketching or painting and are off to gain a degree in visual art to share their vision with the larger world; some are following a love of math or science and know there is so much more we can do with this knowledge to solve problems plaguing our planet; some have no clue what the end result will be but the spark of learning fuels their soul and motivates them to enroll in a variety of programs; off they all go to take on life lessons. Of course we have seniors who will enter the military or work force, some who are already parents, and a few who just don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but they too step away from this 12 year schooling to discover their own course. Today they are indeed all my heroes.
I tell myself that my life is far more complicated than theirs. I mean my worries about the future are warranted, right? Through the decades I’ve walked right into disaster, let dreams wilt into regret, stopped believing in the impossible, and heard bitterness and cynicism come right out of my mouth. Recovering one’s idealism and optimism takes practice, and commitment, and determination, all the traits I’ve asked of these students who stand before me in cap and gown as visible reminders of the possible. I need their hope, and today, I cherish it, as I see myself remembering my dusty dreams. Today I take them out of storage and shine them with cheer. Recall that younger me who trusted. Look to the horizon without fear.
Isn’t it time that we all embrace a bit more of the hope that is swirling around these young graduates? Shut off our radios and TVs and unfollow the hate on Twitter? Instead, spend an hour writing a poem, paint a happy scene on the garage wall, have tea with someone who inspires you, or dance in the kitchen with your spouse? Perhaps let our own unique and promising adventure begin? We have all spent plenty of time grumbling and grousing about our high cable bill, our neighbor’s noisy habits, that President… Endless seconds wasted not doing what feeds our own adventurous soul. Time to toss your cap into the wind and see what new avenues await.
This summer I will do my best to follow these courageous graduates as they take a chance on themselves, as they wager on their own best lives, as they dare the odds and face new horizons. Why not bet on the future? Why not bet on our own? What do you dare to dream about?