One of my most vivid memories of high school is the moment when I realized it was over for good. In June 1998, I graduated from Sonora High School, and after the ceremony came Grad Night -- a revel at a local amusement park that lasted until after sunrise. Frankly, it lasted longer than I did. By 3 a.m. or so, I was so fatigued that my prom date kept me awake by playing one-on-one laser tag, and many of my classmates had literally passed out from exhaustion on the floor around the arcade consoles. When the school bus crawled back into the Sonora parking lot, I jostled myself awake, and then a realization hit me: I no longer had any connection to the few dozen people who were on the bus with me. We were not classmates now but former classmates, and that invisible chain that had bonded us for four years had simply vanished. We got up and staggered down the steps, delivered into a new life in which we would not all be required to be in the same place at the same time on Monday mornings.
The film director Orson Welles had an efficient bit of advice about endings: "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." I want the story of my high school years to have a happy ending, and so I prefer to stop it before Grad Night. Before Grad Night, there was graduation. It was a great night. Teachers gave stirring tributes to us, and we gave the same to them. Horns blew. Cameras flashed. My friend gave a hilarious speech comparing high school to the movie Titanic. We linked arms, high-fived, embraced, and exulted in the feeling that four years of effort had not just paid off, but tangibly so -- those cords, mortarboards, tassels and mounted diplomas felt crisp in our fingers. Four years later, I went through the same rush of festivity, under slightly different circumstances, in college. By this point, I am long done with high school and very likely college as well, but I look forward to both graduations again: My daughter will collect her diplomas one day, and I expect to feel the same wonderful catharsis.
There are few human endeavors that make better endings than graduations. Sometimes, they serve as oases amid the imperfections in between. In the weeks before the ceremony itself, we -- teachers, students, even parents -- are often tired and frazzled. Desktops turn into mounds of paper, calendars into masses of strikethroughs and jottings. The momentum of the classroom lags as summer heat creeps in. Then there is the awkward matter of the weeks after graduation, a moment of suspension before the next phase begins. Friend groups stick together, even as their bonds sometimes begin to fray; in September, different campuses and new peer groups await everyone. Texts and emails grow fewer and farther between. Faces that we once saw in person daily shrink to icons on social media. The symbolism of the high school reunion, ten years later, is poignant: We find out how one another's lives turned out, for the simple reason that we didn't know.
My poem "Commencement Day," which appears this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, is an ode to those imperfect farewells. It takes place the morning of commencement on a college campus, where an RA, or resident advisor, has invited 115 classmates to join him in a group prayer at sunrise at the lake outside Humanities Hall. (That character is based on me; I was never an RA in college and have never hosted a group prayer, but have a history of trying to orchestrate grand moments.) As it turns out, the 115 invitations net two respondents: a twin brother and sister who show up with their Bible, then toss it back in their truck when they realize that the group prayer is off. Instead, they find a rowboat left idling on the lake and mark it up with things they didn't do over the last four years: offices run for, vacations taken, moments of meditation by the lake. The poem ends before the actual commencement ceremony. We can assume that it goes well.
"Commencement Day" is one of the 44 poems in my book The First Thing Mastered, which came out 10 years ago from Tebot Bach. This was the first book that I wrote as a cohesive collection, and it follows a narrative thread: The four sections cover the years from birth to early middle age, touching on infancy, peer pressure, adolescence, college, young adulthood, and finally marriage and parenthood. Writing The First Thing Mastered was an intensive process, to the point where I took an entire week off work simply to sit at home and complete it. (For someone who travels obsessively every chance he gets, that was some dedication.) Once the book came out, I sent copies to a slew of people, including former high school teachers and college professors. Years after we graduate, we still sometimes feel like that earnest, hungry kid, glancing to our elders for a sign that we're doing things right. I'm not sure if they tell you that at commencement.
Note: This poem is dedicated to the 8th-grade class at St. Cyril of Jerusalem School, who graduated last Thursday. I know that it will not be their last perfect finish.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.