My son graduated, but I got schooled

A lot can happen in just 24 hours. I’m going to be brutally honest and completely transparent about something I’m learning the hard way.

Last night my son graduated from high school. The past months have been filled with anticipation of this momentous occasion, but nothing about this was surprising. As I sat in a crowd of thousands, I was reminded that as a highly educated man, I take a lot of things for granted.

The reality is that from the time my children were born, I’ve never really even considered the possibility that they wouldn’t finish high school. It was always a given. It was merely the next in a series of accomplishments I expected to see fulfilled.

Consequently, I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as many others gathered at North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena. Sure, I took some pictures. And I applauded when appropriate. But for our family, this ceremony was simply a formality — something that has to happen in order to move to the next rung on the social ladder.

When Jackson started high school as a ninth-grader, there were around 700 in his class. Last night’s commencement was for around 500 graduates. You do the math. Was the ceremony a little rowdier than I’m accustomed to? Yes. Were there expletives shouted here and there? Yes. Did some of the attendees behave as though they’d never been to such an event before? Again, yes. And in the moment it frustrated me greatly.

Just 24 hours later though, I’m frustrated that I was frustrated. I’m sad that I somehow took a special occasion and made it about me — my values, my story, my preferences.

More than that, I’m heartbroken for the nearly 200 students we lost over the course of four years — many in their senior year. Why couldn’t they finish what they started? The easy narrative is to say they just didn’t care. But I don’t believe that, not for a minute.

I believe that what happened to them is the same thing that happens to thousands upon thousands of urban high school students all over America: poverty, unemployment, pregnancy, physical sickness, addiction, and mental illness. And maybe it wasn’t even something that happened to the students themselves. Just one of these issues in any given family can wreak havoc on the whole family system. How many families struggle with more than one of these issues at any given point in time?

More importantly, how many of us really care? Not in a ‘bless their hearts’ way but in a way that encourages them, empowers them, partners with them, and speaks life into them? Those who serve in inner city social services programs and ministries will be quick to answer: “Not enough.”

So while I’m proud of my honors graduate and his many well-earned cords, it’s important to be just as proud of those who barely made the cut — because so many didn’t. And as in Jesus’ story of the woman and her few measly coins, maybe they too were giving all they had. Here’s an inconvenient truth: Our best efforts are not all equal. To believe anything else is to live in a fairytale world.

I take so many things for granted — like the love and support of Jackson’s grandparents who drove hundreds of miles from different states to celebrate him. How I wish every student could have that kind of faithful, generous, and unconditional love from their own parents and extended families.

So to those who were at graduation wearing their matching “her grandma,” “her aunt,” and “her step-mom” shirts — thank you for caring enough to encourage and support your graduate in such a visible way. To those who shouted out their graduate’s name, thank you for letting them know you were in their corner cheering loudly. To those who made special arrangements to take off work for the occasion, thank you for making the effort.

For those who lack such support, I call on members of the Church and community to step up and be those people. In the words of a famous former First Lady, “It takes a village.” As a responsible, over-achieving, self-confident kid, it was easy for me to minimize that statement way back then. But the older I get, the more merit it has. And supporting our communities is not an issue of politics but an issue of humanity.

I believe the adage “to whom much is given, much is required.”

What does that mean for me in this situation?

  • Humility
    It means accepting responsibility for my own attitude of entitlement and pride. It’s much easier to be cavalier about it and pretend that the world is a bed of roses.
  • Responsibility
    It means standing in the gap and making a difference for at-risk students and families. It means helping them navigate systems and processes that are confusing and resources that are difficult to access. It’s much easier to blame them for the problems in their lives.
  • Engagement
    It means showing up to the next high school graduation in enthusiastic support of those who have no one to cheer for them. It’s much easier to declare that I’m done, now that my son has finished school.
  • Gratitude
    It means being grateful — truly grateful — for all those things I take for granted on a daily basis — things like food, shelter, faith, family, friendship, financial resources, opportunities for personal and professional growth, and even my primary language and the color of my skin. I’m reluctant to add those last two things because it sounds prideful. But the reality is that those two attributes — which I had absolutely nothing to do with — open far more doors than most of us would ever comprehend.

If we truly want our communities to be better, then we must collectively be better at doing whatever it takes to facilitate the success of our youngest members. In a few short years they will be the ones providing leadership, direction, and support. Let’s show them the way by our example.

So . . . my son received his high school diploma. And I have learned one of the greatest lessons of my life. Not bad for a single day, is it?

15 thoughts on “My son graduated, but I got schooled

  1. I am one of those who dropped out in my senior year . My Dad had moved us almost every month until I was a Junior. I was so far behind that I married in January the love of my life. Do I have regrets absolutely . I always wanted to be a nurse but I can’t seam to get the GED passed. I always miss it by one or two points in math. I can pass the whole thing except the math. I often feel like I am so stupid. Yes there are a lot of reasons way one drops out

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    1. Dena, I offer my math tutoring services to you to free of charge to help you pass your GED. I’m not a math tutor but am pretty sure I can help.

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    2. Dena, I’m sorry that you have had such a hard time with the math section on the GED. I definitely can sympathize and empathize with you. I have a Bachelor’s degree and two Master’s degrees and still have problems with math. It is amazing that I can balance my checking account. I had to take Algebra I twice and Geometry to finally earn my math credits to graduate from hugh school. Early on in college, my advisor knew I would never meet the math requirements to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and found a math teacher who was willing to tutor me and guided me to a math lab for help. That was fifty years ago, and I since went on to teach English, Compositin, and American Literature on high school and college levels. I tell you all this because I don’t want you to define yourself because you struggle with math. I encourage to find help. I don’t know where you live, but I feel that there is that one special someone who can either help you grasp what you need to pass the math portion or can put you in touch with someone who can. There will be a new world to open before you. it is not too late to jump into community college and later university. I will be praying you meet your goals. Girl, go for it! BTW, Garrett went to high school with my daughter and attended community college where I taught.

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  2. I really enjoyed your article and I totally agree with everything you mentioned. I just wanted to give a shoutout to a teacher at the high school Reba Cauley when it was brought to her attention that some of the kids that are graduating do not attend because they can’t afford to buy their robes. She requested donations so she could buy gowns for the students that came to her for help. This is so sad and I hope a fund is set up every year for these students. I think graduates can also donate their gowns for others to use.

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  3. My youngest graduated. We were not sure this night would happen for several reasons that I won’t go into-those close to me know the reasons. I have been asked the same question over and over that last week. “What’s next for you guys? Which school is he going to?” The answer is we don’t know. Our normal for the last 4 years has been keeping him alive and helping him fight his mental illness. You see, I feel my son is one of the “Forgotten”. His anxiety and depression became so bad, that he couldn’t function in the school environment so in December, we transitioned to homebound school. By the grace of God and the support and hard work of one teacher, he completed his senior year 3 weeks early and he walked across that stage Tuesday night. It was very difficult for him to do, but he did it, and honestly there were many at that school who told him he needed to drop out….personally, I am glad he’s out of that environment. He will accomplish great things, but right now, we just take it 24 hours at a time.

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    1. Kerri, thanks for sharing this. Everybody has his own journey. I’m glad your son was able to cross the finish line, thanks in large part to your constant encouragement and support. Not everyone has such an advocate, and I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be when that’s the case. May God guide you as you determine next steps.

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    2. My son struggled with mental illness too. Very few understand or are comfortable with this! God bless you as He has blessed us.

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  4. Garrick,

    Helping a few of “those forgotten” is what I absolutely LOVE about my job at Nurse Family Partnership! To hear one of my low-income, first-time moms tell me that besides her mama and granny, “Ms Lee, you are my biggest supporter” melted my heart. Tonight, one of my clients, who got pregnant last year as a sophomore will graduate and walk the stage a year early, after completing all of her coursework at an accelerated option school at her high school in Longview. She pushed through her coursework and spent every afternoon and evening caring for her now 10 month old baby and managed to breast feed her child for 9 months! During home visits when we discussed the benefits of reading to baby, she told me her little girl listened to her read her school work out loud and then a fun baby book. I have another one who graduated last year and will complete her LVN coursework in December and then plans to work and enroll in the RN program at UTT. I love working with the teen moms I see, especially seeing those that don’t have much of a support system come so far and accomplish so much.

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