Today is Commencement Day. After a hectic morning of pinning and adjusting mortarboards, searching for missing tassels, and ushering nervous graduates in to the earworm notes of “Pomp and Circumstance,” we watched as our 76 seniors, the Class of 2014, managed the many words and steps required to graduate from Black Forest Academy. They shook hands with administrators, listened to the carefully-crafted blessings and verses with which we send them out into the wide world, gave clever calls of solidarity to their dorm brothers or sisters, then had photos taken. It was all planned, rehearsed and executed to perfection, and now they’re done.
I haven’t been this attached to a class since 2009, the first class at Ingraham that I saw from their freshman year to graduation. There was another class after them, 201o, but that was the year that I, too, “graduated” from Ingraham, and so the significance of their transformation faded into the background of my more significant life changes that year. This is the first year in a while, then, that I’ve walked the long road of investment, been there “the whole time” with a class. It’s a long season, this cycle of a whole high school, and a good one.
Now, I’m standing at the post-graduation reception, surrounded by graduates in the half-dress of the accomplished. Some wear sundresses with blue mortarboards, while others billow around in unzipped blue robes, looking like Technicolor penguins or Hogwarts professors. Everywhere there are smiles, pictures, and goodbyes.
Between photos, cake and punch, I watch the celebration from the edges for a moment, my attention wandering back to fiction. I’m thinking of a series of book, called The Mitford Years. While technically not literature–the prose will win no awards, and the plot offers few surprises–it’s always been a favorite of my mother and me, the charming tale of an Episcopal priest, Father Tim, and his small parish. In the course of the series, this staid priest’s world is upended, as he marries, adopts children and tends to the ever-changing needs of his parishioners.
It’s a long series, nine books in all, offering a great perspective from which to see the transformation not just of the protagonist, but the community and its members all around him. Some characters are present in all books, beloved and familiar. Others pop in and out, visiting their priest only when circumstances require.
“It seems like I’ve known you forever,” a student remarks, handing me a letter he’s written to Timmy and me.
For once, I’m a speechless English teacher, because I know what he means. Of course I remember meeting him, a gangly, uncertain ninth grader, as if it were yesterday. But with the accumulation of experience and conversation–the bus rides and baked cookies and proofread papers–it feels like much longer than four years that we’ve spent together.
In short stories and shorter novels, the characters are static, introduced as soon as possible so that they can create the action of the work. In a series, though, a life-long book, characters come and go. Life is like that, as I’m reminded today, so gloriously complex that our plotlines sometimes intersect for only a short while. It doesn’t make them minor characters, flat foils to move the plot along–sometimes the briefest cameos can resonate for years.
As I look around me at the “leavings” of Commencement Day, it seems like a long time I’ve known these particular characters. This one chapter–four years of school at BFA–divides into 76 different next chapters. I won’t be able to read all of them, and I can’t tell how many will ever intersect with my own story again, but I’m thankful for these years, and excited to see what’s next.