Graduations bring on mixed emotions

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 23, 2003

Watching all of the graduates this week, from kindergarten to high school, has left me reflecting on those great momentous turning points in our lives. Few are so clearly marked as graduation, with its ceremony and solemnity, its tears and celebration.

I never cried when I graduated from high school – it had been an ordeal for me and to this day, when I hear people refer to their high school years as "the best time of their lives," I shudder. I grinned like the canary-eating cat when I took the diploma in my hand, and would have danced down from the stage and straight out the door if it weren't for the fact that, even though I didn't have the evil old principal's wrath to face anymore, there was still mom's…

I didn't cry when I went through the graduation ceremony at my first college, either, although those truly were some of the best years of my life. In college, I discovered a unique atmosphere –

a society that valued the intelligent and unique, and judged you on your accomplishments, not your pedigree or paycheck. But even though those were good years, among the best, I knew even then there were better years to come –

and I was right.

Because of foolishness, foolish pride and trying to carry two jobs and a full course load at the same time, I came away from that ceremony empty handed, a few credits short of graduation. Six years, one husband, a thousand menial jobs and a baby later, I finally marched down from the stage with a college degree in my hand and again, no tears.

So why do I find myself tearing up now, when I watch these others, from five to 18, accepting their flimsy bits of paper, their rites of passage?

Because I know now what I didn't know then….

The cynic in me sees their bright happy faces, full of hope and fearlessness, and I cry because I know what they are up against. For the first time, they will discover what real life is about, from financial burdens to emotional heartbreak. Their parents may still be there to some extent as a safety net –

heaven knows my mother was until the day she died –

but the responsibility is there as well, and the expectation for them to go out on their own. I cry for the innocence sacrificed on the altar of responsibility, and I cry for the parents, forced to let it happen.

But the mother in me cries for a different reason. Yes, there is some real regret and sadness about the passage – our babies are growing up and leaving us. But more than that – there is pride and joy and hope for their futures. Look at what our children have done! That tiny bundle of wet and wails has graduated from high school and become a man! Oh, child, young man, young woman, what joys await you now! Balancing the fears and responsibilities are the wonders of things to come – the love of your life, the satisfaction of a job well done, freedom to choose your own path, the children to come.

I only wish that they knew what I know now. We always preach to our young, at these times more than any, and they interpret our warnings, based on experience, as symbols of the restrictions they now believe themselves free of. I would tell them about the mistakes I made, the things I learned, but wrapped in that doubly dangerous cloak of arrogance and inexperience, they would not listen.

So like any Mom, I just have to grin and murmur what my mother did.

They'll find out soon enough.