The View From Away: It's not a sprint
I returned from the hustle and pretense – oops, I mean "bustle" – of Los Angeles just in time to land in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Elizabeth’s graduation from Scarborough High School.
Graduation is not merely graduation. It is a week of events honoring student achievements and participation in extracurricular activities. There wasn't the same pomp and circumstance around my own commencement. Or maybe I just don’t remember it. My high school diploma is written in charcoal on a pine shovel. When I went to high school, Abraham Lincoln was president. Not of the country; of my class. I’m old, is what I’m saying.
For me, a week of high school graduation events translates into a week of discomfort. I prefer almost anything to the claustrophobia of a room full of strangers. Fortunately, Carol staked out aisle seats, so I knew I could bolt if I had to. I'm lucky to be married to someone who knows me so well. And in the end, the precautions proved unnecessary. I hadn't been around for the run-up to the festivities, so I didn't know how much my daughter was involved. Turns out it was quite a bit, and learning of her participation kept me in my seat.
Elizabeth was recognized during the final assembly for graduating from PATHS’ food service program, for scholarship, and for citizenship. Not bad for any student, especially one with special needs. During the baccalaureate service, she read one of the senior class prayers and presented a token to commemorate the theater program, her first love in school and in life.
All this adds up to a considerable advance on her father’s high school career. In the recognition department, I was the “guy with the glasses and buck teeth in the second row of the Latin Club yearbook picture” type. I never had the nerve to try out for a play, much less act in one, or volunteer to represent the theater program at a baccalaureate service.
Judging from the cheering in the Civic Center gallery, a lot of families at graduation were experiencing the same mixture of joy and relief I was feeling. When you're slogging it out in the trenches, fighting with your kids about doing homework and saying, yes, you do have to get up and no, I will not give you a ride to school later, you lose sight of what a big accomplishment you all are working toward. It is a big deal to get through high school, whether that's the end of formal education or a way station on a journey with years to come.
In the last week or so, my thoughts have drifted back to Elizabeth’s first visit to our pediatrician when she was only a few days old. I will never forget my growing sense of apprehension as “Dr. Mark” looked her over and kept saying “hmm.” As if there were something new, interesting or different to him about our daughter.
You do not want to hear “hmm” from the doctor during that first well-baby visit. About the only time you don’t want people to find your children interesting is at the doctor’s office, especially the first time. You want that visit to be nice and boring. But I should have expected as much. My wife had already spotted something in the delivery room. Mothers have some kind of weird, spooky intuition I will never understand, but have learned to trust.
We were lucky. Between Carol’s sixth sense and Dr. Mark’s “hmm,” we had a heightened awareness of our daughter’s special needs from the very start. The dirty little secret, the thing nobody tells you, is that all children have special needs. As intense and emotional as our shock was, it immediately put us on alert for our child’s needs. Some parents have to go looking for them. Others get blind-sided when issues show up later, out of the blue.
Without minimizing the difficulty of our path to Sunday’s ceremony, I had a lot of empathy for parents who traveled a road that looked smoother but was laid with its own set of land mines. Every parent and family member had reason to reflect on the challenges that cropped up along the way, and the people who contributed to overcoming them.
If there is any punch line to this, it is that moment of shared consciousness as our kids marched down the aisle at the Civic Center. The collective sigh of relief in the auditorium was palpable. No matter who our kids were, or what they had done, I think we all got it.