Huge. One I should have known better.
I went to Party City to pick up some things for my son’s birthday party on our town’s Graduation day.
The line was longer than the wait for the women's bathroom at an Indigo Girls concert.
Eventually I had all plates and cups and party crap I needed and got into line.
Years later, I made it to the front and the checkout guy asked what the occasion was, if I was in on any of this graduation hoopla. I told him that the Pokemon trading cards were for my son’s 9th birthday party…NOT…high school graduation. And I pray that my he has outgrown this Pokemon thing by then if he EVER wants to kiss a girl that is not a robot. But then quickly added that I was going to attend graduation later that night. I told him that I teach high school and get to graduate every year. He laughed appropriately but I was only partly kidding.
Every year I walk on stage and sit with hundreds of graduates nervously pulling on their tassels, praying not to trip as they walk across the stage and trying to blow up a beach ball or slip on their shades with out me noticing.
And every year I get listen to speech after speech encouraging them to move on. To go forth. To make a difference. To do something. It is cliche. The speeches are all filled with quotes and inspirational stories. Some blow me away. Some I pray will wrap it up fast.
I listen and I remember sitting in their seats in G. Rollie White Coliseum trying to spot my friends and family in that giant crowd. Then, I also worried about not tripping across the stage. How my hair looked. Where I was going afterwards. As in the after graduation party, not my future. It would be another few months before I packed up my Taurus and drove it 7 hours north and west. To an empty dorm with a potluck room mate. This life where I knew no one. My bulletin boards, tiny closet and my now empty gas tank. All of us waiting to be filled up with something new. My dad showed the RAs card tricks while I died from humiliation and hoped that this new girl that I was going to share a closet with would like me ok. Or at least tolerate my James Dean posters and superior musical tastes. And not tell anyone that I occasionally snore.
Back then I did not listen to the speakers, or if I did I can't remember what was said.
I did not listen then, so I try to listen now. Year after year of quotes and jokes.
I can barely remember the girl I was. Sitting in the second to the last row. But I am sure that someone stood on the stage and tried to tell her to go forth and make something of her self.
That was almost 20 years ago, and I’m still working on the “making something of myself” part but I did go. And it has been one of the best decisions I ever made.
My siblings and many of my friends all stayed in town and went to A&M.
I went to a college that required a 2 connection flight to get home rather than a drive across town. I had no friends and only a few acquaintances in this dusty West Texas town that smelled on most days of cow shit. Where the wind always blew and it actually snowed in the wintertime.
My new roommate brought a microwave and TV, and also from home a boyfriend who lived in the adjoining boys dorm across the lobby. Which meant I never saw her. She would not become my new BFF like I’d hoped and we certainly wouldn’t have matching comforters.
For the first semester some nights I’d heat up ramen in my dorm room because I didn’t have anyone to sit in the dining hall with and I wasn’t quite brave enough to eat alone.
Remembering that just a few short months before I’d sat in my folding chair and I had been the girl with good grades. With the honors stole. With the Varsity letters. With the scholarships. And with the yearbook full of signatures and pictures.
Here, all I had was a bag cell phone. A major I was uncertain of and a thick binder full of CDs.
The first semester was lonely. The boyfriend I had left behind had not called. This was a world pre-face time, pre-instagram and even pre-facebook. My dorm room did not have internet and I had to go to the basement of the library to check emails. I’d have them printed out on the slowest dot matrix printer in the universe just so I could read them later instead of studying or watching episodes of friends on my roommate’s TV that was the size of a shoebox. I struggled to find enough quarters to do my laundry, to go to my 8 am classes, and to remember where I parked my car. My first semester was full of bad decisions. Something I had never seen in my life — a C on my transcript. Boys I shouldn’t have kissed. Parties and football games. I joined teams and clubs and organizations. I went almost anywhere I was invited. To church or out dancing or to get a tattoo. Eventually I ate way less ramen. Instead I sat in the hallway until 2 am talking and eating slices of pizza, I stole bathrobes from the showers down the hall. I made friends who I had no history with, who didn't even know my last name and it was then I finally started to realize who I could be.
Because I came alone, I came without anyone remembering that I won the science fair.
or who I’d gone to Homecoming with.
or any of the embarrassing scenarios I could type out here (and there are hundreds to choose from).
There was no reputation to live up or down.
There were no parents near by to make decisions for me.
To gain or lose approval from.
There was just all this empty space (and trust me Lubbock is full of empty space) to figure out who I was.
I’m still figuring it out.
Last night I sat I also sat in the second to the last row of graduates, but I am far from the same girl. Back then quite possibly the best advice any commencement speaker could have given the 17 year old version of me would be to not wash my whites with my reds and to not sign up for 8 am classes. But maybe these speeches and ceremonies are not just for graduates.
We all occasionally need to be reminded of the freedom to move on and go forth and take the next step and fail just as much as all graduates sitting on the stage next to me. Maybe we need to hear it even more at 30 than 18. and 40. and 50. and I hope I am still starting over and struggling at 80.
It should be no surprise that one of my favorite commencement addresses ever is by Conan O Brien who says this:
"I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.
"I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
"So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over."
So just like I told the cashier at Party City.
I graduate every year.
I don’t wear a graduation robe, but I still seek that permission.
To do something.
and to fail.
To keep figuring it out.
To be more of who I’d like to be and less of who people expect me to be.
And I don’t need to turn my tassel or drive North to do that.
In the almost 20 years since my graduation I am thankful for a few things:
That there was NO such thing as social media when I was in college, meaning most of my bad decisions are undocumented and not publicly displayed. That my husband mostly does the laundry and doesn’t get mad when his socks end up pink. That we almost never have Ramen for dinner .
and especially this...
That the story is never over.
Congratulations Class of 2014 and every other year before that.
(on a slightly related note...a few years ago I wrote a letter to my 16 year old self...