It’s graduation season which makes me think back on my high school graduation, or at least what I remember of it, which is almost nothing of the ceremony itself. It’s strange. I remember other peoples’ graduation ceremonies I’ve attended better than my own. Everything from the moment I stepped through the auditorium doors is a blank, maybe because it wasn’t that important to me. Finishing high school was important. The ceremony itself—the cap and gown, the tassel, walking across a stage to get a diploma when my name was called—wasn’t. In first through sixth grade my school had Field Day in late May, marking the beginning of the end of the school year. It was a day-long P.E., mostly races, which I hated because I was a lousy runner and always coming in last or close to it or even somewhere in the middle but nowhere near the winners just seemed to remind me of that. And there were tug-o-war competitions between classes which I kind of liked because they were my one chance to win something even if all we ever won was a lousy little ribbon: blue for first place, red for second, yellow for third. There was no ceremony of any kind. After the event a grownup just handed you your ribbon, and they weren’t always paying much attention so I got a couple of blue ribbons by saying, “Yeah, I just won the, uh, the six decibel caterwaul over there,” but that’s another story. And there was also at least one adult wandering around with a handful of green ribbons for participation. If you just showed up, if you weren’t sick that day, you got a green ribbon. And that’s what my high school diploma felt like: a green ribbon for just showing up.
What I do remember of the ceremony is getting to the arena downtown wearing my suit and tie, and getting there early enough that I wandered around the arena by myself for a while. I was there with my parents and I guess they were getting their seats while I was supposed to go downstairs and line up with my classmates, but all of my classmates were wandering around talking to each other and seeing if they could stick their arms far enough up into the machines to get a free Coke so I did that too. The school gym, which was normally used for pep rallies and basketball games and the Christmas talent show, wasn’t good enough for graduation ceremonies so the administrators rented the dilapidated downtown arena which was normally used for hockey games and wrestling events and a hideout for junkies. It’s since been demolished. When the time for the ceremony itself got close enough we all dutifully headed downstairs and were lined up. At some point we must have put on our caps and gowns. You’d think wearing a gown for two hours is something I’d remember but, no, still drawing a blank. I was placed somewhere in the middle, so I guess we were lined up by class ranking. I wasn’t valedictorian or salutatorian or stentorian. I didn’t even have perfect attendance. I was exceptionally average.
I was standing next to Sally, a girl I knew so barely I was kind of surprised to learn we were both in the same grade, and for some reason they made us go in as pairs. As we stepped up to the doors Sally grabbed my hand and said, “Oh God, this is it. Please tell me it’s going to be all right.”
I hope I told her it was going to be all right but I have no memory of any of it because we stepped through the doors and my last thought was, Well, let’s get this shit over with. No, that’s not entirely true. I remember thinking, wow, for Sally this is really a big deal, and I envied her feeling that way. Intellectually I knew this was a big deal. We’d spent more than a third of our lives in school. There’d been a lot of changes along the way. Some kids moved away and as I’d gotten older and moved through different schools my circle of classmates had gotten bigger, some had dropped out, and a few hadn’t made it, but I was still graduating with a handful of kids I’d started kindergarten with were in that auditorium graduating with me. This was a special event. I just couldn’t feel the specialness of it.
It’s strange what we remember and what we don’t. I remember being outside the auditorium after everything was over, still wearing my cap and down, and laughing with a friend of mine. One of my teachers came over and told me I looked happier at that moment than she’d ever seen me. Without thinking I grinned and said, “I wonder why that is,” and then laughed even more because I felt like I’d unintentionally insulted her even though she was one of the best teachers I’d had. And then we left. It’s not surprising to me that I don’t remember the car ride home because riding in the car was something I did regularly, but I think even then I was aware that I could barely remember anything from the previous two hours.
When we got home some of my friends showed up and dragged me away to one of their houses. We spent the night watching movies and playing games and eating and being stupid and whatever else we did to have a good time. We consumed every food item in the house. Around 4:30 am we were mixing flour and generic brand soda and we all finally went home well after dawn, still strangely wide awake in spite of being up the entire night. It wasn’t that different from a lot of other weekend nights we’d spent together and yet I remember every minute of it.