Letter To My Son On His High School Graduation Day
This letter was written the day before my son’s high school graduation ceremony, which was this past weekend.
Tomorrow afternoon you are going stand in an auditorium with a thousand other kids your age. People will speak. Some parents will dab tears. Others will be elbowing their way to a prime position in order to take a photo with their zoom lens. I don’t need to tell you which group I will be in. Though we have threatened to bring air horns, posters painted with glow-in-the-dark paint, and start the wave when your name is called, we probably won’t. Probably. Then at some point you will flip your tassel and walk out of the stadium while Pomp and Circumstance plays. One of the few pieces of music that is tied specifically to an event, like the Wedding March. Whenever you hear that music you will think back to your own graduation day, high school or college.
Sometimes music is more personal in the memories that it invokes. There are songs that immediately take me back to specific times in my life.
I can’t hear the song Copacabana (aka Lola to me) by Barry Manilow without thinking of my best friend Jessica who went to Catholic preschool/kindergarten with me. We used to take the bottom of our t-shirts and tuck them into the neckline and out the bottom, turning our shirts into makeshift halter tops. We would stand on the top of the giant metal slide that was erected on asphalt and belt out the lyrics, “Her name was Lola. She was a show girl….” Then we’d run down the slide in our rubber-toed Keds. No one would use the slide properly in the summer since the hot metal would burn the back of your thighs- the seventies were not known as an era of safety-consciousness. It’s a miracle we all survived, really. You kids today don’t know how lucky you are.
Then there was the Grease soundtrack. Suddenly I am a third-grade girl lying on my bedroom floor area rug, with the record player just in front of me ready to skip over the songs that I didn’t like, wondering a) why Sandy wouldn’t have written a letter to say she was moving from Australia to California, b) how did she fit into those tight black pants at the end of the movie, and then c) jumping up on my bed to reenact the Sandra Dee song, which was a staple at sleepovers for a few years.
When I hear Michael Jackson’s Thriller, I am suddenly anxiously awaiting its video premiere on MTV all over again. Sitting on the floor inches away from the TV, talking on the phone to my best friend, Pam. The curly cord of my phone stretched almost to its breaking point. My mother not understanding why we had to be on the phone if we were watching TV.
The Steve Miller band brings me right back to college. A group of friends used to play the greatest hits album ad nauseam at parties. Whenever I hear the opening of the song Jungle Love, I immediately think of tequila and regret. I don’t think I have even had a drink of tequila again since the early ’90s. College ruins at least one kind of alcohol for everyone, for life.
When I sing along to all of these songs in the car, and you and your siblings look at me with what I assume is shock at my awesome singing skills, probably wondering how much brain space is being used for song lyrics that could have been put to better use, perhaps remembering all the things you all assure me you have asked and received permission to do.
Your sister has been so into that song Cups from the movie Pitch Perfect. The child has inherited her rhythm from me, and I am descended from a long line of rhythmically-challenged people. So in her quest to learn the cup-slapping rhythm, I have listened to this song many, many, many times. And it will always remind me of now–this specific period of time. I can see you and each of your brothers and sister in a snap shot in my mind. Songs have a way of doing that, of carrying you back to where you were when you listened to them.
“When I’m gone, You’re going to miss me when I’m gone….” The lyrics have seemed more like a premonition now. I hear your sister’s little girl voice singing, her skinny long limbs, and too-large teeth and it is tempting to think that she will never be gone from home, or at least not for a very long time. But the truth, I already know, is that those days pass quickly and it will happen before I am ready. In my mind you are still a boy.
Over the past couple of years you have slowly pulled away. Your friends have a larger share of your life than your family and that is how it should be, not that it makes it any easier. Sometimes you get annoyed when I ask you lots of questions, but that’s just because I still long for a connection. I am interested in everything you do. I think you are a pretty awesome person and sometimes I am on the verge of bursting with pride. I give myself an internal high-five and say, “Yup, I made him!” Not only that, I pushed your freakishly large head out of my vagina. Does that make you uncomfortable? Well, that’s nothing like the discomfort of labor.
You have been the “Practice Kid.” The one on whom I honed my mothering skills, for better or worse. How often I hear from you that you weren’t allowed to do something your younger siblings are now allowed to do. And how often I hear the opposite that you had greater privileges at their age. It is so unfair and unjust! My answer is always the same. Things are different because I have become wiser as a parent. Many things I have decided are not important, and other times I made mistakes that I now avoid.
So, here we are. You have achieved another milestone. You are done with your compulsory education, though it was touch and go for awhile. And no, you will never use sine, tangent, and cosine in real life. I want you to know that being a mediocre student doesn’t mean you will have a mediocre life. What you choose to do now is up to you. You truly are the navigator of your own destiny. As frightening and exhilarating as that might be to you, it is even moreso for me.
High school for me wasn’t the best time of my life, so don’t worry if it didn’t hold up to what Hollywood movies portray. It wasn’t the worst time either. It was pretty much like every other four year slice–mostly good, and some bad. I hope the same for you. I hope when you look back on the past four years that the good memories outshine the bad and that we can all laugh about things that were decidedly not funny at the time.
I know you will find your way in this world, of that I have no doubt. What I worry about is the journey to that place. It is normal as a parent to want your child to have an easy path, not one littered with obstacles and challenges that are mostly self-imposed. But it is your life now. I can only observe and offer advice when it is asked. I want you to remember as you journey out into the world that this path, whatever the one you choose, is life. Work hard. As we both know hard work will beat out talent any day of the week.
There will never be another time in your life when you are so unencumbered by responsibilities. Do something with this time. Soon life and jobs and bills and a family of your own will come into the picture. You may think you will give it all up and travel at a later time in your life, and maybe you will, but it will be infinitely more complicated. I don’t think I know anyone who has said they wished they had traveled less during their youth. The world is vast, so go explore it. Some more advice:
Eat some vegetables
Don’t mix colors and whites
Don’t waste time ironing
Be on time
Laugh often and loudly
I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone.
I’m gonna to miss you by your hair.
I’m gonna to miss you everywhere,
I’m gonna to miss you when you’re gone.