underneath each and every gown
i am firmly a believer in this truth: every blessed soul on earth is a story, has a story, is worth sitting back and listening to. if only we all took the time. if only we all stopped all our talking, and tuned in to what some say is a dying art, the art of listening.
this might seem a funny place to begin on the morning of my firstborn’s first real graduation. but it’s not really. it’s all about all the stories that will walk across the stage, will be handed a diploma.
it is even, it is especially, about the stories of those who won’t be walking, the ones who didn’t even make it to the eighth grade. one blessed girl in particular. it is impossible for me to live this day and not think of another mother who must be aching, rocking, holding herself against the pain, because all around her eighth-grade kids are blithely slipping on their gowns, and her eighth-grader is no longer, is buried not too many miles from the graduation stage.
forgive me. days like today are days for remembering. and i cannot forget.
there is one boy’s story i know well today. i have, these past few days, been reliving every frame. today, more so. more than in a long, long time.
and while his is the story that i unspool, that i pore over frame-by-frame, i merely make the point that each graduation gown is draping someone’s story. underneath the yards of shiny polyester there is hope and heartache, there is triumph and defeat.
i only make the point because to understand the pomp and circumstance you really need to tune out the hoots and hollers, you need to telescope the lens and try to contemplate the wrinkles and the heart beat pounding there beneath the folds of cloth.
maybe it’s why i am often misty-eyed. maybe it’s why they call me sappy mama. i am always considering the unspoken, i am always imagining the story that’s not told. i am always divining the universal in the particular, and the other way around as well.
and so, when i see the streams of blue-gowned eighth-graders pouring in the auditorium i will know that each and every one has a story worth listening to, worth telling.
i will know that once upon a time a woman standing, perhaps, in a bathroom, saw a pink stripe appear on a little plastic disc. the mama knew, right then, that she was on her way to having a baby who, if she’d done the math she would have known, would be in the eighth-grade class of ‘007.
i will know, too, that she, like me, felt overwhelmed in those early days. like the first morning the papa went to work and the baby in the baby seat just squawked, while the mama tried to figure how in the world to shovel in the cereal—in her own mouth—fast enough.
i will know that somewhere around kindergarten there might have been a kid who hung off to the edge of the playground, who climbed to the roof of a little playhouse, kept an eye on the proceedings, tried to figure out how he’d ease into the world where everyone else already seemed so adept at playing games he didn’t know.
i will know that someone else might have once spent a whole semester being the new kid, once again trying to figure out the rules of a whole new world where playing baseball and soccer seemed to really matter. only he was more interested in al gore, losing the election.
i will know that there were late nights in kitchens where there were lots of tears. where a kid who sat alone at lunch came home crushed.
i will know that another mother ached. that she lay awake and tossed and turned, trying to figure out a way to lift the load, to show the kid the light at the end of the long tunnel, to make him understand that this middle school drama was really hell but some day he would be a grown up who owned the world. because he knew the stuff, already, that really mattered.
i will know that somewhere along the line, there came a wind from the holy blessed south, a warm wind, a divine wind, and it blew right up to and touched the small of some kid’s back. suddenly, he raised his wings, and he was soaring. he spoke out and kids around him started to listen, started to understand that he was no non-essential person.
he was funny, he was smart, but most of all he stood up and named injustice where he saw it. pounded out a note to the principal. named names, signed his own. didn’t flinch. would not stand and watch a kid get taunted. not any kid, not even ones he didn’t particularly like.
after all, he’d been watching, studying injustice for a long, long time. since the roof in kindergarten at least.
and in the end, at least as far as this story so far goes, he was the kid they voted most likely to be the president. he showed me just last night in the yearbook. underneath the note from the principal thanking him for being a kid who taught him so very much.
i will think of all those stories as the kids come streaming in. and i’ll, once again, be the mama crying. the mama lifting her every blessed breath to the God who long ago turned the blue stripe pink and landed that precious gift of life into her very heart. where it will reign forever.
as well as stories, i believe in prayers. on this morning of the end of grammar school, i whisper mighty prayers to all the teachers who got my firstborn here: the kindergarten p.e. teacher who taught life lessons with every game of mouse-and-cheese; to the first-and-second-grade teacher who taught him all about the monarchs and gave him spotted wings to fly; to the third-grade teacher who kept him safe and unafraid on 9-11; to the fourth-grade teacher who lit the burning light under u.s. history and made it achingly hard to leave the laboratory school; to the fourth-grade teacher who welcomed him with open arms, who opened up the classroom over christmas break and brought in a friend so the first real day wouldn’t be so very hard; to the fifth-grade teacher who made him laugh; the sixth-grade counselor who got us through the year, promised light was coming and it came; the seventh-grade team who cranked up all the gas, delighted in the kid who found his voice and the power of his intellect, then sat back and let him roll; the eighth-grade reading and science and math teachers, and the drama teacher too, and the retiring social studies teacher who was there at woodstock, had friends in the sds, and planted a few radical ideas along the way. to each and all and beyond. i thank God for the power of your vision, the unspeakable gifts you bring to every classroom, and the love of learning you infused into one very thirsty sponge. bless you.
and, now, chair friends, your graduation stories…..do you still remember extraordinary grade-school teachers who got you to where you are? do you relish the untold story, the story you know dwells in someone’s heart, even though you’ve never heard the words? do you too sit back and feel the sweep of so many stories swirling in a room, try to catch a flutter of every one, just because it’s always true that we are all of one?
p.s. about the photo: it is a giddy thing, some times, to be a blogging mama with a camera. you can turn up the sap and no one’s there to stop you. thus, i cracked open the save-forever box and hauled out the baby shoes, the first overalls and the first backpack my little schoolboy ever wore. laid out on his size XXXXXXXXX blue graduation gown, it tells a story all its own. bless you for indulging me. bless him, when he sees what his mama done….