Graduation & The End of an Era

It’s graduation season, and even if you don’t have anyone culminating, you can’t help but feel the bittersweet vibe of moving on. I can get teary-eyed just by looking at pics on social media of other people’s kids tossing caps in the air, posing in their gowns, and holding up diplomas for the world to see.

This year, though, graduation is personal — yesterday, my daughter culminated from her K-8 school, and where we live, the kids will now scatter far and wide, as there is no one neighborhood high school. So for the weeks leading up to this auspicious event, she and her friends have been ramping up for an emotional parting. We’ve had torturous sentimental Adele songs on endless repeat, learned to qualify nearly everything as “the last… [fill in pretty much every daily activity]” and on more than one night, I’ve had to tell her to dry her tears, because her friendships aren’t over — they’ll just morph into a new phase. And assure her that she can always go back and visit her teachers and the ol’ schoolyard.

This doesn’t really help her, and truthfully, she and I both know my lame attempts at comforting her are filled with empty promises and, to put it bluntly, lies. Graduation inherently is all about endings, and the reality is that many of her childhood relationships have already had their heyday and will now quickly fade into distant memory. The classrooms, auditorium, field, and quad where she has spent most of her days since she wore shoes that fastened with Velcro all the way up to the Converse high tops she cruises around in today will never be her stomping grounds ever again.

While this may sound overly dramatic for just a middle school graduation — I mean, c’mon, who wasn’t happy to leave the addled days of junior high behind? — for me, this is now an official end to an era.

The thing about eras is that they don’t really stop abruptly; they tend to fade over time. Nine years ago, when my children started at the school, I was pretty much an at-home mom, eager to help out. I volunteered for committees; dressed up like a turkey for the annual jogathon fundraiser; was the “mystery reader” who burst into tears in front of 20 terrified second graders because I was dumb enough to read them a sentimental poem from Free to Be… You and Me; helped out in their classrooms; baked brownies for endless bake sales; cleaned up after school dances; sat through about a million assemblies and performances; and chaperoned field trips.

(Don’t worry this is some kind of martyr me plea; everyone I know puts in substantial time and effort into their children’s education, be it in the school or at home. This is the reality of today’s public school systems — it’s all hands on deck, because funding relies heavily on parents, and homework’s a bitch in the worst sense of the word — thank you, Common Core!)

Back in those early days, I often heard other elementary school moms complain about how the middle school parents didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the school — they would all just bug off and leave the heavy lifting to those with kids in the lower grades. I’d nod my head in agreement, wondering where the hell they all went.

The answer, of course, is that little children need a lot more hand holding, and by the time they’re in middle school, kids and teachers alike want more of a hands-off approach. Not that teens don’t need help navigating everything from studies through to the hormonal jungle, but much of that happens is behind the scenes and off campus.

As the kids get more independent, we grown-ups start to remember what it was to have our own lives, work, ambitions, dreams, projects, desires, and even personalities.

But this all develops gradually, and of course the parenting gig is ongoing, so most signs of the end of an era are easy to miss. For example, when my son graduated middle school, the lead-up was brutal. There was a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth — all me, not him in the least.

And while it was quite poignant, the bittersweet sensation was mitigated by the fact his little sister was still firmly planted on familiar terrain. First times for anything tend to be emotional purges anyways; after I got that out of my system, I was relieved.

So my daughter, who was going into seventh grade at the time, got the benefit of a freer, looser, more relaxed mom for the lion share of her middle school years.

She also got a much bigger dose of independence at an earlier age than my eldest did — sometimes excitedly, willingly, and happily.

Other times, not so much. We’ve both fought back fears and tears as we grew up a little faster than we’d ever imagined.

Yesterday when I stepped on campus, I was hit with the full force of what graduation means: it truly is an ending.

The final chapter of a very sweet time of life.

And although I did shed a few tears, I also felt a growing sense of excitement about all the wonderful things to come.

For my daughter.

For her friends — many of whom I love like my own.

For my friends.

And for myself.

So if you see me wiping away a tear, just know it’s not about being sad or happy — it’s just another salty drop in the ocean of new possibilities that all graduates and their parents set sail on once the last strains of Pomp and Circumstance fade into the horizon.

After all, eras don’t start at the beginning — they begin at the end.