A Witness of Transformation

Gelato or graduation? My most pressing question in 2006.

The morning of my last Commencement Day, I woke up feeling rested and disoriented. I’d been traveling for almost three months in Great Britain and Ireland, and that morning, I was in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre, in northern Italy, spending a week traveling with a friend from home after my quarter abroad.

I woke up on a soft bottom bunk, not unlike mine back in Seattle, and for an instant that’s where I thought I was. At the home I left behind, ready to get up, don a black robe, and head to a sports arena to finish college with my classmates at Seattle Pacific University. It wouldn’t be a bad day at all, I thought to myself, but I had other plans.

I can still sketch the skeleton of the day, shading in the details with probabilities. Mel and I probably had pastries and espresso for breakfast. We definitely took the train straight to Monterosso al Mare, saving hiking for another day, where we ate gelato and sprawled on the beach. We probably swam in the Mediterranean and read novels (mine was probably A Room With a View, which had just started to get good). We definitely returned to Riomaggiore in time to get dressed up and have pasta and seafood in an actual restaurant (in contrast to our normal pesto and focaccia spreads). We probably sat on the breakwater and watched the sun set, and I probably said something sarcastic about “missing graduation.”  I didn’t, if I’m honest, miss it at all. It was a good day.

So it’s with some amusement that I realize, many years later, that I’ve been to more graduations than I can count since then. Trapped like a hamster in a wheel or a Bill Murray in a Groundhog Day, I return almost annually to the climactic steps of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the intoning of full names and the billowy robes that, mysteriously, seem to be blue no matter where I go. They are each unique and very much the same. Same words, different faces.

The most moving commencements are the ones I’ve watched, not the ones I’ve… commenced. There were the high school graduations of my siblings and a handful of others. The culmination of four years advising two different classes in two different schools, my beloved classes of 2009 and 2o14. One year, my sister and my mom both walked in SPU’s ceremony, finishing their B.A.’s on the same day, despite starting about three decades apart. Those were good days, all of them, significant and memorable in ways that my own Ballard High School graduation was not.

This is a significant milestone, without a doubt. Last week, a student of mine from Ingraham celebrated getting her degree from a private university, while working full-time to pay for it, becoming the first in her family to graduate from university after also being the first to graduate from high school. Graduation is a big deal for her, as it is for everyone around her, even the far-away ninth-grade Language Arts teacher who hears about it.

Ballard High Graduation, 2002

But for many students, this last day of high school or college gets swallowed up in what’s behind or ahead if they’re not paying attention. It’s the rest of us–teachers, parents, siblings–who watch from the sidelines and remember. Not just who they are today, these grinning graduates in flat hats and gold cords, but who they have been. Or all the whos they have been.

We’ve seen the wide-eyed sixth graders, the confused freshmen boys, the first dates of sophomores, the tired-out juniors, the questionable decisions of angst-ridden seniors. We’ve seen mistakes and redemption, confusion and answers, love and loss. We’ve seen these things better than they have, sometimes, and this ceremony marks the transformation, a moment laden with individual histories even as they are ironed into azure uniformity for an hour or two.

I stand at the back of Black Forest Academy’s commencement ceremony this year as the students exit. The Class of 2017 somehow managed to break with tradition enough to recess to John Williams’s Imperial March from Star Wars, a bit of whimsy that adds to an already-whimsical moment. The students pair off, give a hug or a handshake or a light-saber battle, and then walk down the aisle to the back of the room arm in arm.

With two of my small group girls after graduation. Well done!

It’s charming, as it always is, and without much anticipation tears spring to my eyes as I watch them. I don’t know these students well, I realize, but I have watched them grow up. They were in the sixth grade when I began teaching at Black Forest Academy, and now they’re as grown up as they’re likely to get in this part of the world. They are tall and bold, ambitious, eager. And they are gone now.

Even fifteen years later, I remember the excitement of being a newly-minted high school graduate. I only had a street-level view, though. I couldn’t see very clearly the difference between the ninth-grader who entered that big public school with fear and resentment, and exited four years later, with more knowledge, fewer prejudices, and a concrete vocation to return to high school as soon as I could, this time as a teacher. My parents, youth pastors, and teachers, they could see the journey.

From this side of stage, it’s the journeys that I love now. Perhaps I’ll graduate again someday, from a yet-unknown school with a different-shaped hat, but until then I’m content to be a spectator, a witness to transformation each June, marking time with tossed caps and waving incredible people on to the next season.