It is a really hot day, even for June. The oppressive heat and humidity made my hair sit on top of my head like a bowl of cold spaghetti; and I’m supposed to be getting ready to go. Oh, there goes my stomach again. It reminds me of how I felt two weeks ago when we were getting ready for the awards ceremony. There we were, preparing to watch my only son receive an award and I was sick. My stomach tossed and turned as my head pounded in my ears. Too much stress. It should have been a happy occasion. I should have been proud to watch him walk up on that stage and be recognized for his achievements. He may not understand what an academic award like that – especially in your senior year - stands for; college applications, resumes, general bragging rights; but what teenager really does? I remember how I felt when I got mine, and I just want him to be that proud of himself. He did relish the chance to get dressed up and be the center of attention.
Tonight’s graduation ceremony is being held in the athletic facility of one of the local colleges. All of the high schools in the county are having them there. I have never been inside, but I’ve seen it on television and it is huge. Driving by it on my way out of town I noticed that it has parking lots the size of a small city. I need to remember to tell Josh to wait for me after the ceremony. If he tries to find the car he’ll get lost for sure, especially if it is dark when we get done. I just hope someone will be there to make sure he gets where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.
“Mom!,” Josh calls from upstairs where he’s getting ready and interrupts my worrying.
“Yes, Josh, what’s wrong?”
“I need heeeellllp,” he says in the most fake, pathetic-sounding voice he can muster.
“O.K. Bud, be right there.” I make a detour on my way to the steps and find the antacids to calm my stomach. When I get upstairs, I see him looking sadly in the mirror and fiddling with his tie. He has wrapped it around his neck and looped the ends over at least six times until it looks like some kind of strange necklace with a ball on the end. Trying not to laugh, I ask him, “What have you got there?”
“This tie!” He says, “I need help.”
“Well yes, it looks like you might,” I say with a giggle, and we both laugh at ourselves in the mirror.
We’ve just finished getting ourselves together when the doorbell rings. “I got it!” Josh screams as if I’m not standing in the same house, or the same neighborhood for that matter. My parents are at the door and they have balloons and cards in their hands for the man of the hour. My brother and his wife pull up as my parents are congratulating Josh and make their way in the door. We’ll have the whole family there tonight; “Moral support in case I faint,” I think to myself.
My sister-in-law hands Josh a present and he puts on his regular show, “Aw, for me? You shouldn’t have!” He opens the present, which is a frame in the shape of 2005, with openings in the zeros for pictures. He says “Thank you!” and sticks something in his jacket pocket for later. Mom volunteers to take Josh to the arena early so he’s there in time for practice. I’m really grateful because it gives me a little while longer to try and settle my nerves. As they get into the car to leave I ramble out a list of directions, “He has to go to the south entrance, and make sure that you find his teacher, don’t just let him loose in that place, he could be lost for days. Hold his jacket so it doesn’t get messed up, and comb his hair before he goes in. Josh, make sure you listen to the directions so you know what to do, and stay with Nana when you’re not with your class, ok?” My mother gives me that ‘who do you think raised you’ look that she always does when I go on like this. “OK,” I try to get in one more thing before she shuts the door on me, “We’ll be there in an hour, save us seats.” As they drive away I wonder if I’m really going to make it through the whole evening in one piece.
Traffic is stopped miles before the arena exit. My brother has the radio on and is discussing some work-related incident that happened that day with his wife in the front seat, so I’m left to my own devices and demons again. As I’m contemplating getting out and walking to the arena, and realizing that it wouldn’t be too smart in this heat, I start thinking again about the awards ceremony. Nobody understood why I had trouble with the idea of Josh getting that award. Everyone thought it was wonderful, “Oh, I bet you’re so proud,” one of my co-workers said. Well, I thought to myself, I would be if it were real. The award was for having a 3.5 or better grade point average and being in the top percentile of his graduating class. I know from experience how hard that is, and what it’s like to be a kid who deals with the pressure to get good grades. Class rank, honor roll, valedictorian, salutatorian, I know the drill. How does Josh fit into all that? Yes, Josh does work hard and he really tries his best. Heaven knows that his twelve years in school were nearly the death of me. I’m so relieved not to have to send him there anymore I wouldn’t care what grades he had. But don’t they realize that it’s not the same?
Josh started his school experience in a ‘special’ school. Months of fighting, advocating, and attending meetings led to him being ‘mainstreamed’ for his elementary school years, but he spent his middle- and high-school years in mostly segregated settings. Kids like Josh are allowed to attend their neighborhood schools now, but the services still haven’t caught up with the idea of full inclusion. The support groups I attended when he was young made it sound so easy. His vocabulary has greatly improved in the last few years, he can read some, and he’s a wiz on the calculator, but does that really make him academic award material? I struggled with that question from the time I received the letter requesting his attendance at the ceremony, until the moment I saw him strut across the stage to accept it. The smile on his face when he heard the applause made me think, “Well, he deserves something, and if this is our reward, then so be it.”
By the time we get to the arena, I’m in full mushy-mother mode. It has finally started to dawn on me that my baby has grown up.
It’s hot, loud, crowded, and generally uncomfortable in the huge arena. I think to myself: “Sardines.” When I join the thousands of other parents, grandparents, family, and friends crammed into the wooden bleachers, I feel like just another parent of a graduate: smiling, shedding tears, clapping, snapping a hundred pictures of people’s heads. I feel a sense of enormous pride as my child takes that long-awaited walk across the stage.
During the processional, they play “School’s Out” and the sound of that song brings an even bigger smile to my face as I picture Josh, somewhere in that crowd of teenagers, singing along with Alice Cooper. It takes what seems like hours to make my way through the sea of caps and gowns to find him. When our eyes finally meet, his smile says it all. He’s so proud he can barely contain himself. “I did it, Mom!”
After the hugs, we make our way to the alphabetical lines to retrieve the intended contents of the leather bi-fold that he’s carrying. He won’t get an actual diploma. When I realize that the certificate that he does get doesn’t even fit into the jacket, all of the feelings of normalcy that I’ve allowed to creep into my mind are shattered in an instant. We’re second-class, again. Quickly hiding my own feelings of inferiority and despair, so as not to let them spoil his mood, I say that it’s time for a picture. Posing is one of Josh’s favorite things to do.
We straighten his gown and make adjustments to his hat. “How’s this?,” he says as he straightens his back and puts on a super-cheesy grin. A silver necklace, hanging over his tie catches my eye. It’s a plastic row of silver beads with a six-inch plastic graduation cap hanging from it that says, #1 Grad! It must have been part of the wrapping on his gift, and yet he wears it proudly, like a badge of honor.
As we make our way home, among the chatter in the car, I can’t help worrying once again. How much does he really understand about difference? (He’ll surprise me later with stories that prove he comprehends much more than I thought.) The more I fight and agonize over equality, the more he reminds me that being happy has more to do with your own perception of events than anyone else's. “Look Mom!,” he says in the dark car beside me, “#1, that’s me!”