No tears, but plenty of pride

Last night I didn’t cry.

I even brought Kleenex just to make sure I’d have some if I did cry.

But I didn’t cry.

Instead, I felt a tremendous amount of pride.

Somewhere between 9 and 9:45 p.m. last night, my son became a high school graduate.

He officially received a “certificate of achievement.” He will not receive a diploma until he finishes the STRIVE program, which he’ll begin in August.

He marched into the stadium along with about 600 other graduates of Parkview High School. They came in wearing their blue-and-white robes and caps with tassels in the Parkview colors of orange, blue, and white, while a recorded loop of “Pomp and Circumstance” played over the PA system.

He sat and listened to several speeches by adults and teenagers encouraging them as they left Parkview and went forth into the world. One young man talked about windshields and rear view mirrors — how windshields allowed you to look forward and rear view mirrors let you look back, but that it wasn’t healthy to spend all your time looking in the rear view mirror. A young lady spoke of her desire to become a Marine Corps officer. And another young man sang Neil Young’s “Forever Young” as his graduation speech.

It took probably about a half hour, maybe a little more, for all the names to be called and for each student to walk across the stage, shake the hands of the people there, and get their picture taken (and which I will probably receive the chance to order in the next few weeks.)

I took some crocheting with me and I worked on a crochet basket. That was my antidote against being bored while waiting for the ceremony to begin and while listening to the speeches.

Inevitably, I drew comparisons between my own high school graduation in 1981 and my son’s in 2017.

Mine was held indoors at the Mahaffey Theater at the old Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, and I think mine was in the morning. I remember walking down the aisle rather quickly instead of at a processional pace. We all sat on stage behind our speakers. The valedictorian of our class is a Facebook friend; I told him that the only thing I remembered about his speech was the phrase, “Remember 12th period?” He was referring to the days when our school was on double sessions with the freshmen/sophomores going to school in the afternoon and the juniors/seniors going to school in the morning. Because of the sound system and the acoustics, I couldn’t hear his speech.

Our chorus sang, “I Sing the Body Electric” from the movie “Fame”, which was appropriate because it was the song the characters sang at their graduation.

As a member of National Honor Society, I got to wear a set of yellow honor cords, which I still have. In my graduation program, my name is marked as a NHS member and also as graduating in the top ten percent of my class. (I was #4 and I was either the top-ranked or second-ranked girl.)

At Matthew’s graduation, there were other honor cords: science, languages, and others I can’t remember, and NHS members wore sashes. The class officers, valedictorian, and salutatorian got to graduate first.

In the graduation program, I saw a list of names that reflected the diversity that my graduating class didn’t have: Nguyen, Patel, Tran, Li, and a number of Hispanic names. That’s a reflection of the ethnic diversity that characterizes my area of Gwinnett County, Georgia. (There was one year where my son was the only white child in his class. Autism does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity.)

And the crowd received the order that no graduation crowd ever follows: “Please hold your applause until everyone has graduated.” You could tell where each graduate’s family was sitting because you could hear the cheers from that section as their graduate’s name was called.

My graduating didn’t throw our hats or turn our tassels. Matthew’s class did, although Matthew was advised not to, because he might lose his tassel.

When the ceremony was over and the parents rushed the field, I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to find Matthew. And then I saw him, standing alone, looking around, and I yelled at him, “Don’t move!”

And when I got down on the field, I gave him a very big mother-hug.

We took his picture, and then went to the cafeteria, where he got his certificate.

Just like that, it was over. Fifteen years of classes and school buildings and teachers.

IEP meetings are not yet over. I still have them as part of Matthew’s participation in the STRIVE program.

But here was the thing that touched me the most, both at the graduation rehearsal yesterday and graduation last night:

The non-special ed students that told Matthew congratulations and hugged him.

Matthew, in addition to being in an autism class, also took drama and worked in the Java Jungle, the coffee shop in the cafeteria. So there were plenty of students who knew him and liked him.

In 1981, the year I graduated from high school, I don’t recall the special ed students being integrated into the life of the school. In fact, I didn’t know anyone with special needs. The federal mainstreaming law had just been passed in the mid-1970’s and I’m sure that its effects were still working its way into our school system.

Yesterday, when I went to Matthew’s graduation rehearsal, I saw at least one student using a cane. And who knows how many other students were dealing with disabilities that I couldn’t see.

And after that rehearsal, Matthew spoke to several students; just as he did when we were leaving Parkview after the ceremony.

He was part of the life of his high school, not just shoved into a back classroom and ignored.

I am pleased.

And I am proud.