Last week marked the 20th anniversary of my high school graduation. Next week my two oldest children will “graduate” from preschool. All around our region this month, students are making transitions – from middle school to high school, high school to graduate, college student to work force.
I have only a vague, time-warped memory of my high school commencement – a white polyester gown to go with the tasseled cap, friends and family gathered, the rain that moved the ceremony from the football field to the gym at Westborough High School.
In an attempt to recollect my thoughts of that day, I dug out my old journal last week. The entries surrounding graduation are filled with the words of mixed emotions: excitement, fear about the unknown future, disbelief that the first 13 years of my schooling were coming to an end and that I’d soon be leaving the only town I’d called home for a college six hours away.
“I don’t quite know how to feel – excited, scared beyond words, nostalgic,” I wrote in neat lines of cursive. “At the same time, I feel free, invincible – you know, like an 18-year old… So much is changing, and change may very well be my greatest fear!”
What struck me most as I read those words two decades after writing them – beyond the revelation that I once had such neat penmanship – was the anxiety that seemed to overshadow the celebration. It reminded me that graduation – whether from preschool or middle school, high school or college – marks both a beginning and an end and is both celebratory and wistful.
Like any major life change there’s likely something worth holding onto in the old and something wonderful to look forward to in the new. The trick is that you may not realize what those things are at the moment of transition.
Two years ago, as I prepared to send my children to school for the first time, I was torn between the freedom preschool would allow me to do more work, to regain a small sense of flexibility, and the terrifying knowledge that I was delivering my children into a world completely unknown to them.
I was a mess of nerves as I shepherded them out the door toward that first morning, and by the time we’d loaded up the family minivan for the short drive to school, I was shaking. Partly I was anxious for these shy, reserved, precious babies who had never been cared for by anyone other than their parents and grandparents. And partly I was conflicted between wanting them to go and wanting them to stop growing up so dang fast.
My little boy, who had eyes only for Mama, jumped right in, with barely a backward glance to see if I was still there. For my little girl, who is strong in so many ways, the transition involved lots of tears, plenty of drop-off clinginess, and my heart breaking a little bit every day.
The preschool my children attend is amazing, with great teachers, good kids, and lots of exploration of both ideas and the world just outside the schoolroom door. When you’re 3- or 4- or 5-years-old, school is a fun adventure, a combination of short bursts of focused learning, blissfully messy art projects, and playing with friends.
For the lucky students, schooling – and life in general – remains an adventure, an exploration, a joyful experiment. Of course, there are also tests, long papers to write on topics that may not captivate you, teachers you might not get along with, and homework, just as in life there are challenging projects, difficult co-workers, and too-long days on a stressful job.
I’m more than twice the age I was when I graduated high school, with 20 more years of living added to my resume of life experience. And my preschoolers are nearly kindergartners. They can count to 100 – by ones or tens – and spell their names in uppercase and lowercase letters. They’re learning to read. They can pump on the swings and hit a baseball off a tee and ski expert runs. They’re still shy and reserved among people outside their inner circle, and silly beyond belief with those they know and trust.
Next year, they’ll probably be a little timid at the start of kindergarten, in “the big school,” and I imagine I’ll be a bit of a wreck, again, on the first day of school. It won’t surprise me if I shed a tear or two as my children once more enter an unfamiliar world with new people and new rules, the next phase in the long process of growing up.
But they’re excited, too, and they’ll figure it out. Just as the kids moving up from 8th grade will learn the ropes of high school. Just as the ones graduating from the high school or college this spring will bask in the glow of accomplishment and the excitement – and uncertainty – over whatever comes next.
No matter if you’re a 5-year-old starting off in a new school, an 18-year-old moving beyond the familiar parameters of high school, or a parent watching a new phase unfold for your child, the change marked by graduation can be both scary and exciting. But we usually adjust, and with a little luck and some work hard, we can grow and thrive.
At the end of my first college semester I had achieved the two big goals I’d had - earning good grades and a spot on the varsity soccer team (where I did a fabulous job of warming the bench) at Ithaca College. From the old familiar comfort of home, between semesters, I added these words to my journal: “I nervously moved away from all that was familiar and secure and jumped head first, anxiously into the world between childhood and adulthood known as ‘college.’ I have met so many new people and friends and have continued to grow and learn.” Life after graduation, it turned out, was pretty good.
To everyone graduating this year, whether from preschool or high school or college or anything in between and beyond – congrats, good luck, and here’s hoping you love the life you find as you move on.
A version of this essay appears in the Record-Littleton this week.
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