“The past four years have been pretty crazy,” said a willowy, poised, Savannah Grassel, tassel dangling from her mortar board hat as she faced her 180 fellow graduates and a beaming crowd of thousands of family and friends filling the bleachers on the football field to overflowing.
I crouched in the grass with my camera alongside the front row — feeling a sudden lump in my throat at the brave and naive enthusiasm of these bright, shiny kids, suddenly ready to move on. They felt like my own, somehow, after four years of watching them win softball games, perform in state band tournaments, sing and dance on stage, saunter up the Beeline with hair dyed pink, toil up the trail from Fossil Creek.
“And yes, we live in a small town,” she continued.
Ah, here it comes, I thought, the teenage dis on living on a boring little small town, where everyone’s always ratting on you to your father.
“But it’s never just been about how good the Pizza Factory tastes the first time you could leave campus for lunch,” she said.
“And it’s never been that Alfonzo’s burrito because you just didn’t want to go to CTE class,” she added to cheers, in reference to the broadly unpopular, but mercifully intermittent, careers class.
“And it’s not just about playing fugitive or all those nights we can’t talk about here,” she added, to an even bigger cheer — from the fugitives and the skulkers and the good kids testing their limits. The teenagers desperate to fit in, yearning to find themselves — all their hopes and their needs tumbled together in the same bottomless bag.
She waited for the laugh to die. She had them now, comrades in arms — survivors together of broken homes and stage fright and struggles with drugs and struggles with teachers and the deep, dread that they’ll never fit in, never amount to anything, never be good enough.
“This town has shaped us,” continued Grassel, the Class of 2014 listening intently. The kids this year received a record $1.25 million in scholarships. They’ve also apparently set a record when it comes to the number who have been accepted into college — which probably has something to do with a remarkable, grant-funded program run by master teacher Kristi Ford. She has served as a tutor and advocate and social worker for this class, starting in seventh grade, catching them when they fall, prying open doors, pleading their case with administrators, running the Academic Decathlon class.
“This town has made us the people we are today,” Grassel continued with affection. She looked out at the overflow of love perched on those crowded, aluminum bleacher seats. Those stands brimmed with people who’d spent the last four years staying up late to pay bills, grumbling as they paid the fees for sports and field trips, struggling to help with the math homework, driving battered minivans way too long — largely unappreciated taxi drivers. They’d all prayed for this day, although now that it was upon them pride wrestles with fear that they’ll lose the thing they love the most.
“I want to thank all the teachers who challenged me to go the extra mile, to make class worthwhile,” said Grassel, looking out on the teachers in their robes. They’d each made other people’s kids their life’s work, grumbling and struggling with the lesson plans and frustrations and band fundraisers and late night paper reading. And now they dabbed at their tears.
For all these years, said Grassel, “we’ve heard that we have the power to change the world. Well, Class of 2014 — the time has come. And I know it’s all easier said than done.”
Then she quoted basketball star Michael Jordon who said, “when you hit a wall, figure out how to climb over it or go around it.”
Then she quoted Vince Lombardi who said, “it’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.”
Then she quoted “The Breakfast Club,” in which someone said, “Spend a little more time trying to make something of yourself and a little less time trying to impress people.”
Good advice, all of it.
I kept tearing up: buoyed by their joy, touched by their courage. I knew they’d get bruised and beat up out there. But I knew they already had their scars. Kids don’t get a soft start anymore. Families fracture, boyfriends stay the night, fathers fade out, killers vent on YouTube, Facebook takes bullying to strange new levels.
I remember graduation — fearful and optimistic. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I could have it if I only worked hard enough, stayed true, followed that little Jiminy Cricket voice. Well, turns out John Lennon was right: Life’s what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
But still, for just a moment as those kids cheered and high-fived and whooped and flung their graduation mortar board hats into the night sky, it seemed to me that maybe you can do anything, dare anything, bear anything.
And when the happy families rushed onto the field to create a jostling sea of hugs and kisses, I realized that love is already everything — the rest is gravy.
As school board president Barbara Underwood put it, “never lose sight of the dream that was nurtured by those around you.”
So way to go, Class of 2014. We’re so very proud.
The torch is passed. You’ve taken on the dreams we had for ourselves that we’ve passed onto you. Keep them safe, your children will need them — as we needed you.
And about those nights Grassel said you can’t talk about.
It’s OK. Don’t tell me.
I’m not sure I could sleep.