The graduate looks ahead, the parents look back

THE GRADUATE is restless, the sibling is bored, and the mother is teary. What is the dad supposed to do at high school graduation?

After years of attending graduation ceremonies at pre-school, lower school and middle school I should have figured out the proper dad decorum for this event. But, if form holds, today I will be watching our older son graduate from high school, feeling both faintly anxious -- gotta get the good snapshot -- and faintly melancholy. I will marvel at how fast the years have slipped away, yet how slowly parts of the proceedings seem to move.


Fathers who have already weathered the high school graduation of their offspring tell me a primary emotion you feel at the end of the ceremony is relief. Your kid is now a happy high school graduate, a circumstance that during the dark days of early adolescence seemed unlikely. Veteran dads also tell me that the graduation ceremony is a good time to daydream about buying yourself a reward -- a new fishing rod, a golf club, a new suit -- for surviving the past four years of life with a teen-ager. But once you have settled on that proper reward, you have to act fast, one dad warned. By August, when the kid starts college, money starts to disappear.

This week I kept telling myself not to get too worked up about the graduation. I reminded myself that it is "only high school," and that many forms of higher education, and other graduation ceremonies, loom in the kid's future.


This view doesn't work in Baltimore. This is a community with a long memory, a community where, when adults ask you "Where did you go to school?" they are asking about high school, not college. Already my kid has attended an alumni association lunch, where he and other seniors were given mesh laundry bags bearing their high school's logo. Perhaps the alumni association can succeed where most parents have failed, namely, getting our teen-agers to pick up their dirty clothes.

As I see it, the high school graduation ceremony is the "capper," the last in a string of banquets, concerts and dinners squeezed into the final days of the school year. At these end-of-the-year events, awards are made, speeches given and teachers honored. Watching your kid receive an award is thrilling. Yet after sitting through back-to-back nights of these often lengthy ceremonies, even the most sentimental parents eventually agree that it is time to say goodbye to high school. Who among us, while vigorously applauding yet another worthy recipient of yet another distinguished award, has not glanced at the program and silently calculated how many more awards to go until we are outta here?

Nonetheless, on graduation day, parents occasionally fall victim to nostalgia. We feel the urge to slow things down, to relive the triumphs of our kid's high school career. Selective memory is at work here. We tend to recall the bright shining moments, the awards and the applause. We tend to forget the night of the two flat tires and the tense, table-slamming debates about Saturday night curfew.

The graduates, on the other hand, seem itching to get moving. High school is history, and tempting forms of excitement -- from a week at Ocean City to the chance to live away from their parents -- are on the horizon.

The high school graduation experience reminds me of a family in the middle of a long car trip. The parents want to pause, to savor and appreciate the road just traveled. The graduate is more interested in what lies ahead, in seeing what is around the next bend. And in the back sits the little brother, making plans for the time when his big brother is gone and he is in the driver's seat.

And so today I will do what parents do in June. I will sit in the audience and watch my son walk across a stage and receive his high school diploma. This will happen at St. Paul's School in Baltimore County, but similar scenes will be played out at high schools throughout Maryland and the nation. At the end of the ceremony the kids will cheer, the moms will beam, and the dads will pick up the cameras and take snapshots. We will try to get the graduates to stand still, to freeze time. It won't work; they will be gone before we know it.