Graduation

diplomaMost of my childhood, I was an outsider. We moved often, and in the midst of it all, I skipped a grade. In every school, I usually made one good friend, but I never invited people home. My father was brilliant and charismatic, but he came home from World War II violent and unpredictable. In those early days I never knew when he might erupt, or what a visitor to our house might see. I was passionate about learning, and I spent a lot of time in the library or hanging out after school with teachers.

Later on, things got easier. I was pretty, and in high school good looks are social currency. Being smart began to score more points for me; I was even elected to some offices. But that acceptance seemed shallow, and I didn’t really trust that anyone liked me for myself.

Then, in my senior year, things changed. We moved back to my dad’s small hometown. The fact our parents had grown up together, and I’d been there briefly in elementary school, gave me tenuous ties to my classmates.  I wasn’t an insider, of course; you can’t just come into a small town and really belong.  But I had my first serious boyfriend, and through him I made more friends.

Senior year was a big deal in our little town. The community really embraced us and made us feel special, with a whole series of social events. All the festivities culminated in graduation and the senior trip. In 1964, our entire class was to go to Colorado for a week. Stores in town contributed, and we all raised money to make it possible. It was an exciting time.

Throughout my childhood, my father owned different businesses, and made and lost a lot of money. It was always feast or famine, financially. For 8th and 9th grade I was in a wonderful boarding school, but toward the end of my freshman year, my dad declared bankruptcy, and I started my sophomore year at yet another school.

What I didn’t know until later was that the boarding school was still owed tuition, and using their only leverage, they didn’t release my grades to subsequent schools. So in my senior year, as graduation grew near, my situation presented problems to the school administration.  Technically, I didn’t have enough credits to graduate, although my grades put me at the top of my class.  They had already decided not to let the newly integrated black seniors graduate, for academic reasons. I was something of a small town political hot potato.

Once I understood what was happening, I tried everything I could think of to resolve the situation. I talked my mother into taking me to San Antonio, where I begged the nun in charge to release my grades. No luck. I implored my grandfather to help with the bill. No dice. I lobbied the school principal and the superintendent to at least let me collect a blank diploma, and go on the senior trip. They refused, afraid of controversy.

This was a tragedy in my young life, and as happens in tragedy, I moved that year through disbelief and denial, into bargaining, through anger and despair, and finally into acceptance. On graduation night, I sat in the audience and watched my friends walk across the stage. At dawn, I saw them off on the school bus that took them to Colorado.

The consequences of this situation impacted my life in much bigger ways. Because of my National Merit test scores, I had offers from all the Ivy League colleges. Those disappeared.  The General Equivalency Diploma (GED) was available in the military, but it was largely unknown otherwise. Perhaps if I’d had a knowledgeable advocate, I might have been able to get into college, but I didn’t.  By that time my mother’s drinking was getting worse, and my father, as he did under stress, simply withdrew from the situation.

Instead, I moved to Austin and went to work. My boyfriend and I got married. We were in love, but we were much too young and completely unprepared emotionally for marriage. Still we lasted ten years, and we had two children, my daughter and my oldest son, who mean everything to me.

A few years later, I was accepted under a waiver into The University of Texas. I went to several colleges around work and babies, and eventually graduated summa cum laude. I completed my training as a psychotherapist. Being a single parent struggling to go to school was hard, but it all led me to the fulfilling life and career, and the wonderful marriage I have today.

What really carried me through that whole senior year experience, aside from my own mental toughness, was the kindness and support of my classmates.  My boyfriend listened and commiserated with me. My friends included me in everything. I was invited to every senior party, even after it became clear I wouldn’t graduate, and not a single person in my class ever made me feel left out.  That kindness and friendship transformed me. Although we all went separate ways and I rarely see those classmates any more, I went on to form a rich tapestry of friendships that continue to sustain me. Through that painful experience, I came to feel I was worthy of friendship. And for that I will always be grateful.

 

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