On Sunday, we went to a high school graduation ceremony. ‘Tis the season for cake and caps.
Adam was worried we would be late. I could tell because he wasn’t saying much, and he stared at the road like he wanted to diminish the distance with his eyeballs. His nail-bitten fingers clutched the steering wheel at a perfect 10 and 2.
My husband doesn’t like to be late. Neither do I, but hey. It happens.
We looked at the screen in the center of the console. The dictator of our days. The digital clock read 12:53 in neon green. The same color as those Mr. Yuk stickers my mom used to put on her old perfume bottles filled with gold liquid that smelled like dried flowers.
“See?” I pointed at the numbers, our marching orders. “Plenty of time. We won’t be late.”
I adjusted my jean jacket collar over my rainbow-printed maxi dress. I like wearing beachy dresses because they are easy to put on and don’t require buttons or zippers. They aren’t confining. Like nicer-looking pajamas. This one was a gift from my aunt in Minnesota. I wear it on special occasions.
I flipped down the visor. Lipstick likes to embarrass me by covering my front teeth.
I gave the small square mirror a fake smile. All clear.
Adam pulled into the school parking lot and cut the engine. I looked up at the big orange letters adhered to the brown-red building. GO VANDALS. A collective community cry that reverberates from the football stadium to the Whippy Dip, across the dirt roads and corn fields and back to the gymnasium….which is where we needed to be right now.
I glanced at the clock one last time as we stepped out of the car. 12:58. The ceremony was scheduled for 1 p.m.
Today, it was Adam’s cousin Elijah who would wear the long black gown and mortar cap and drape the orange satin ribbons across his shoulders. He was second to last in Adam’s long line of family members who have gone through the Vandal school system. Once Montana graduates next year, there will be a drought in this bloodline at the high school.
My flip-flops thwacked against the concrete with a pace that labeled me Late. One step behind, Adam walked with his steady, sure gait. He never appears frazzled or rushed, even when he is.
We opened the heavy glass doors that gave way to the high school lobby. I was hit with a wall of energy buzzing in the air like a swarm of bees…. the flavor of excitement that only exists when Something Big and Life-Changing is about to happen.
A long line of teenagers in black and orange cut across the lobby, weaving like the body of a milk snake. A few faces glanced our way—tan girls with shimmery eye shadow, tall guys with dark hair—while bobbing their knees and overlooking each other to get a closer look into the gym entrance. We’d learn later that the 2018 class barely stretched over 40 students. Small in size but big in possibility, the salutatorian said during her speech.
“Just in time,” I whispered to Adam. He nodded.
We passed the line of anxious seniors and leaned against the doorframe that opened to the gym. The bleachers were packed with people that looked familiar but not exactly recognizable, either. In the rows of metal chairs grouped across the wooden gym floor, I saw a hand rise above the sea of faces. I traced the fingers to the elbow to the neck and found the face of Adam’s mom.
“There,” I said, grabbing Adam’s shoulder and pointing. He took a step inside the gym.
Adam had worn the same black cap and gown years ago. That was before I knew him. While he was busy graduating, I was ten minutes down the road, two years younger and a grade behind, building my own world in another small town that was the same but different: red instead of orange, Bulldogs instead of Vandals, names like Courtney and Katie and Jessie, and Marty and Stefan and Kelly, instead of Bobby, Pat, Rachel, Ashley, Shane, Trevor.
With seconds to spare, we said hello to Adam’s parents, his aunts and uncles, and settled in for the ceremony. I turned around. Big, thick metallic black 2018 balloons connected to an umbilical cord of white ribbon wound around a white archway. I looked out into the rows of faces— grandmas, grandpas, moms, dads, friends—all just as connected to these humans as the balloons to the ties.
The familiar notes of Pomp and Circumstance began. The students marched in, two by two, like an eager army.
I waited. Then, my mind pressed play on my memories.
It happens every year. My personal Pavolivian response. No matter how many days distance myself between the then and now, this time of year transports me like a time machine. Back to the Then. To graduation, and St. Charles, and 17-year-old me…a girl with blonde highlights and big dreams and naïve notions of what the world offered me, instead of what I could give to the world.
With every bite of buttercream party cake, with every nostalgic slide show, every carefully curated photo board, I often think of my Thens in comparison to my Nows.
Then, I wanted to be a magazine reporter.
Then, I had numbers in my phone that I don’t use anymore.
Then, I thought I knew everything because I thought I had nothing to lose.
My heart had less cracks. My brain had less wisdom.
I still talked to her. I hadn’t forgotten him.
My feet had yet to touch the Atlantic Ocean.
My hands had yet to hold his.
The losing comes with the learning. And the growth.
Inside the gymnasium, the ceremony continued. The Senior slideshow had a few technical difficulties. A baby with blonde curls squealed. The band played, the awards were given, the hands clapped, the names were repeated.
Once they were declared graduates, the students didn’t toss their caps into the air.
Maybe they didn’t know they were supposed to.
Maybe they didn’t want to.
Instead, the group walked out just as they walked in. The school song played and their world surrounded them one last time before cracking open to reveal a wide sky hovering over a rolled-out red carpet of new opportunities. If they wanted them.
As I jumped into a photo with Adam and Elijiah and moved with the current of family, I pressed pause on the memories. The feeling of standing on the edge of the familiar and looking out at the dreams that dot our skyline like boats out to sea.
And I realize…that fresh & new isn’t reserved for graduates. The gratefulness for where we’ve come, and the excitement for where we’re going? We're allowed to feel that way...and to endlessly search for that feeling, again and again.
Life brings new seasons. New chapters. New choices, and chance, and change.
And hey…maybe some buttercream cake.