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Be Gentle With Your Graduates

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photo by pixiesticks23@flickr.com

When I graduated from Hobart & William Smith Colleges in 1989, Professor Lee Quinby made a poignant speech and reminded audience members that another word for graduation is commencement and that commencement means “to enter upon” or “to begin.” She described commencement as a hopeful word, and it is. But she also went on to remind us that whenever there is a beginning, there is also an ending.

I have held onto these words for all these years because they have felt true to me. For example, I understand that when a man marries – while he adores his bride – he may simultaneously long for his bachelor days: the time he used to spend with his friends, unfettered by the responsibilities that come along with being a husband. When a woman gives birth to a child, she is no longer alone; she now must care for the needs of another person. And while she may revel in her child’s newness, she may simultaneously grieve the loss of her independence. When a child moves from one grade to the next, he may be excited about moving to another level of education, but he may be nervous about new expectations. Children may secretly mourn friends they know they will not likely see again; they may become silent and withdrawn or explosive and nervous.

Professor Lee Quinby presenting, recent

Professor Quinby suggested that we consider allowing ourselves to grieve a little bit as commencement can be a scary time, an uncertain place, that middle place where one doesn’t know where one is going yet. We only know where we have been.

My advice to parents during this time of year is an echo of a lesson taught to me by Professor Quinby over 20 years ago: Be gentle with your graduates, whatever their age or grade. Some of them may be feeling a little disconnected – particularly if they will be starting at a new school, separating from old friends, starting a new job, or moving away from everything they have ever known. And while you may not be able to tell it from looking at them, on the inside, they may feel a little bit like lopsided, three-legged tables. Okay . . .  just a little unstable.

George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” So don’t worry if you see your graduates begin to reinvent themselves a little bit over the summer: The rule-following boy who was so kind throughout elementary school, may become a little meaner as he enters middle school; the introverted girl who has always done everything her parents asked may suddenly seriously consider getting her belly button pierced, despite their protests. It’s okay, they are morphing, becoming, and this starting over can make all the difference in the world.

At one time or another, we all want to be someone else. The smart kid. The pretty girl. The cheerleader. The athlete. The guy with the cool car. It’s what children want – and what we grow out of, if we are lucky.

So let them change. Let the star football player put down his shoulder pads and try out for a play, if he wants to. Let the ballerina trade toe-shoes for track shoes; let the drummer try a little yoga. Feed their dreams. Help them discover all the various, untapped parts of themselves. Support them, but don’t rescue them from their jitters as new strengths will come from the discomforts of the middle place. Transition takes time. Give them time.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t baby them. And don’t buy them crap for graduating from kindergarten (“We’re so proud you can finger-paint!”) or elementary school. (Gag.) Instead, give the age-appropriate responsibilities as rewards for their new stage in life.

And trust me when I say that your graduates are going to be fine. Lee Quinby told me so a long time ago and, in my experience, she was right.

What do you remember feeling about graduation?

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