It’s a beautiful morning in the city of Cleveland, which is not Detroit, and I’m humming across campus on my mobility scooter headed to the gymnasium. This is the final dawn of my undergraduate life and only the third time I’ve been inside the gym. My friends and I join a steady stream of other graduating students dressed in black robes, the color and style of which my cousin’s kid would later confuse for Hogwarts, a comparison I find apt given the amount of witchcraft it took to get through the four years. Striding against the flow of robed people is an acquaintance dressed in street clothes almost proudly declaring that he had forgotten to buy a cap and gown until the absolute last minute. Four years ago, this act would have seemed cool, off-beat, and maverick, but now? Now we all know better, and our collective rolling of the eyes says it plain.
This is the last day, and it’s no longer funny.
A child’s memory is an Occam’s razor of sorts. Parents, teachers, and other impressionable parts of society often try to dictate what is important in life. What moments are to be remembered, cherished even, and what moments we should overlook, but as a child, the moments we remember aren’t always the ones we’re directed towards. Given the increasing pageantry today’s young nippers put up with, it’s difficult to say that none of the pageantry probably matters to them. Okay, maybe some do register long-term, like a Mother’s Day tea party in 4th grade, but when it comes to the graduation ceremonies, things fade quickly. I have no memory of my elementary or middle school graduation assemblies. I know they happened, I imagine there may even be pictures out there, but if the moment is recorded in the archives of my mind hovel by the sea, well, the beach crabs must have carried it off. Crustaceans are sneaky like that, especially imaginary ones.
Actually, now that I’m sitting here thinking about lobster librarians, I recall that our 5th grade graduation involved receiving a bag of Famous Amos Cookies. I ate one and decided they were too crunchy (like crustaceans) and promptly gave them away to a pretty girl. I think she’s married now, and happy, I hope. What I do remember with better clarity is the last day of first grade. And for me, that day carries far more weight than a bag of cookies.
Bifurcated is a fun word to say. It means split in half. Bifurcated is also the way I like to describe my first grade experience. I entered the first grade in Nashville, Tennessee, which means I have country music street cred although I would never flaunt it. During that winter, my family moved to Huntington, the ancestral homeland, and I became the new kid at school. The difference between the city of Nashville and the small town of Huntington is significant, but irrelevant to a child. The difference between my first grade class in Nashville and my first grade class in Huntington is significant and highly relevant to this child. In Nashville, the teacher was, as one might describe a certain loud Cheetoh running for president, a real piece of work. She lost her temper frequently and, from my perspective, for no reason at all. Hammurabi’s code had no place in that classroom, only the will of a petite-fisted despot who towered over some of us. However, I’d like to mention that my kindergarten teachers in Nashville were wonderful, so these accusations of tyranny shouldn’t apply to all teachers in Nashville, some of whom I’m sure are good people.
When we move to Huntington, and I join my new first grade class, the whole experience shifts. Unafraid to show signs of happiness, the class welcomes me like they know me already and are well-versed with my disability.
Let’s pause a moment to discuss children encountering disabilities. Parents, when your kid is staring at me, please don’t drag them over to apologize. Chances are, if presented with a person like me who’s their age, they’ll probably roll with it just fine. Kids don’t carry your prejudices yet. But if you drag them over, it says to the kid that “yeah, this person should be stigmatized” because, get this, kids stare at everything that looks different from them, and when you single out one different thing from the rest, you’re adding the wrong kind of significance, you well-meaning dumdum. Argue with me if you want, but I see what they see, I live at their height. You don’t. #feelthetuck
Mrs. Hamlin, the Huntington first grade teacher, has a reliable routine for her class. In the morning, you complete the various assignments on the board, one almost always involves drawing pictures. Upon satisfactory completion, a first grader is dismissed to go play on the computers in the back. The computers are first come, first serve, but being a brighter bulb than some, I never fail to snag a machine. By playing on the computers, what I mean is playing on the word processor program. It’s rudimentary, primitive by today’s standards, but the word processor has clip art to go with whatever you decide to write. Little did I know at the time that my later work would involve playing with a word processor and adding the appropriate clip art. Compared to the chaotic regime of Nashville, Mrs. Hamlin’s class felt like coming home. With the fun put back into education, winter passed into spring, spring passed into summer, and the last day of first grade arrived.
On the last day of first grade, I don’t remember a change in the morning routine, but perhaps there was some mention given of the day’s finality. What I do remember is that after lunch and our appointed recess time, we were led back outside for the rest of the afternoon, the longest recess in recorded history. Well, the recorded history of Tuck, which will eventually become regular history if my plans pull through.
Ever mindful of approaching doom, I recall asking Mrs. Hamlin several times when this extended recess would be concluded, it wasn’t part of the routine after all, and while I don’t remember her answer verbatim, I do recollect a distinct vague impression. To me her vagueness in answering meant that if I kept asking then this bubble of unbridled recess joy would burst, and we would be led back inside. I didn’t want that to happen, so I stopped asking questions. Instead, I enjoyed the afternoon, the backsliding of expectations, and it felt important, like we earned it. Our first vacation. Until I went to university, every last day of school since has tried to live up to the last day of first grade. None have succeeded completely.
Thinking back again, and fighting off a few pesky mind crabs, high school graduation probably should have felt more important than it did. High school wasn’t easy for me in ways being good at academics can’t help. Graduation is an accomplishment for anyone, and please do not let my flippant remarks degrade or devalue or de-funk your groovy graduation memories. It’s just that I grew up with the expectation that I would attend college so the completion of 12th grade lacked the finality it holds for some. My parents held a party, and by my parents I mean my mother, and the invited guests were an eclectic mix of significant people from my life. The amount of currency I received in the dozens of congratulation cards was also significant and really should have been an indication for me of the day’s importance. But after experiencing, and forgetting, several graduations previous, I think part of me didn’t really believe high school graduation to be worth celebrating. Like when your current teacher tells you the next year’s teachers won’t put up with your shenanigans, you immediately join your classmates in a collective eye roll at the emptiness of the threat. When they told me graduation was important, I wanted it to be important, but my inner eye rolled, and that was that.
The actual ceremony in high school was nice, I guess. Later that evening I ate Waffle House with friends I wouldn’t see again, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Case Western Reserve University, my undergraduate battlefield, is a difficult experience both academically and again in the ways academics cannot help. It’s a real piece of work, but hacking your way to the end leaves one feeling like you can take on the world. Maybe other schools offer the same sensation, but I didn’t attend other schools.
Returning us now to the stream of black-robed Case Western students walking to graduation, you may wonder, if no previous graduation felt important, why does this acquaintance, the one who’s forgotten to buy his robe until now, not rouse our spirits with amusement and delight? Why do we roll our eyes at him instead of with him. Surely the pretense and artifice of the graduation ceremony is ridiculous, right? In the moment, I don’t know why his shenanigans fall flat. Except, as a group of students, there’s an unspoken gravity to the morning we’re not admitting yet. About an hour later, when the actual ceremony begins, my ears hear a sound, and everything falls together.
Cue the pipes.
The march into the gym, now bedecked with pomp for the circumstance, is conducted with the piercing shrill of bagpipes. Few instruments feel as primal. The moment the bagpipes call out for us to proceed, the enormity of the day lands on my bony shoulders. Unlike previous graduations, I won’t see most of these people ever again. They’re not from my small town, I didn’t grow up with them, my mom isn’t friends with their mom, and while social media alleges a connection, it’s not the same. Of course, I know my friends, my brothers-in-arms, will keep in touch. We’re a tight-knit group who refuse to let go of one another, and I wouldn’t trade them for any other group of friends, or an Xbox. But this is the last day of university, after today it’s up to us to stay connected, to keep in touch, to continue sharing our lives with one another. And that’s a daunting task, because, if we’re lucky, it’s going to be a long time to put up with each other.
Shaking hands with the president of the university, for the first and last time, I can’t help but feel as if none of these administrators know me. I’d much rather have had my diploma handed to me by a professor or advisor, someone who spent time with me in the trenches, or more accurately, someone who ordered me over the top. But nothing in life is perfect, except baby animals.
Two weeks after graduation, I get word that I’ve been accepted to film school in California. Two-ish years later, I would receive my diploma in the mail. More accurately, my mother received my diploma in the mail because I was less than interested in it. I didn’t even attend the graduation ceremony. It’s not that I didn’t work hard for that piece of paper, I did, but after that morning in Cleveland, after experiencing the paradigm shift graduation ceremonies are intended to impart, I couldn’t walk across another stage without feeling like the maverick buying his robe the morning of. An outsider looking in, pretending he gets it. He doesn’t.
My last day is over. I earned it. I believed it. And nothing else like it will ever feel the same.
Once more, cue the pipes.