What Do You Remember About Your High School Graduation?
As friends post online about their children graduating from high school, one asked about our own memories of high school graduation or if we even remembered the event at all. I do remember mine, but thinking about it brought back other memories, too, memories of being frightened and alone but surviving.
The graduation ceremony itself took place on a windy day outside in the football stadium. I remember holding the flower that the girls had been given during the ceremony and holding the notes for my speech while also trying to keep my mortar board hat from taking flight in the breeze. A couple of bobby pins weren’t nearly enough to secure that thing that seemed built like a kite. The honor stole was flapping about in the breeze, too, and I was worried that it might take off, too. I remember the standing ovation for the brief speech that a friend wrote for me because I’d told him back in the beginning of tenth grade that, yes, he could write my valedictory address for me if I ever became valedictorian–something I didn’t dream would actually ever happen. I remember a teacher asking me if the speech had been written by that friend because he recognized the style. I remember a stranger introduced himself as the father of a classmate and also a friend of my father; he said he knew my father was proud of me and wished he could be there. Then I had to scurry off because the family I was staying with wanted to leave right away and saw no reason for me to hang around and chat, let alone go to a party or something.
The family I was staying with. They’d been practically strangers when I was left at their door a couple of months before graduation. They were people I’d seen and had heard my dad talk about I didn’t have much personal experience with them until after my father had built a second yacht. Well, sort of. He hadn’t built it from scratch like the first one. For this one, he’d bought a steel lifeboat from the navy–the kind of lifeboat that could hold more than a hundred men–and gutted it down to the hull before rebuilding it into a yacht that he and the rest of my family would sail away in. They wanted to finish the journey we’d begun a decade earlier when we’d left Australia on a voyage around the world. This time, they planned to sail from Texas, across the Atlantic to Europe and then eventually head back across the Atlantic to the Panama Canal and finally return to Australia where our journey had begun. They did not want to sail through another cyclone. Once had been enough for a lifetime. So, they left in early April to avoid hurricane season. Since I wanted to finish high school, I was left behind to stay with a family my dad knew. A family that I barely knew.
Imagine this: I, a very sheltered seventeen-year-old, was dropped off at the door of this family that I didn’t really know, suitcase in hand, and was let in by a complete stranger. If my parents had realized the situation they’d left me in, I’m sure they would have taken me out of that house immediately. This young man, who was about twenty-five years old, introduced himself as the black sheep of the family, the son my parents knew nothing about; he’d just been released from prison that day and had made his way back home. His parents weren’t expecting him, it seemed, and he had no idea who I was or why I was there nor did he know where his family was. I wanted to turn tail and run at that moment but my dad had already driven off and I didn’t know where else to go. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when the family came home, I found myself in the midst of a huge family fight–the kind of fight that lasts for months. One of the teenage daughters, whom the parents had thought was leading a very sheltered life, had apparently just revealed that she was pregnant but wasn’t about to tell them who the father was. I felt I’d been plopped down into the set of a soap opera–or maybe it was a horror film–and I just wanted to go back home, but my family was out in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere far from phones or mail boxes or any other form of communication, and someone else was now living in the home we’d rented for four years. When the father of this family told me that my dad hadn’t paid for me to stay there but had instead told him that I would make payment for my expenses, I was sure I was being scammed but I didn’t know what to do about it. Dad had told me that he’d arranged everything and had never mentioned me needing to pay to stay with these people. I thought Dad had taken care of everything, but I couldn’t call him to ask and what would I do if these people decided to kick me out? So I paid what I was asked and carefully hid the rest of the money my parents had given me and tried to keep them from being aware of its existence. Is it any wonder then that my biggest memory of graduation was going back to their house that night and making sure I had all my things packed because very early the next morning, before daylight, I walked to the Greyhound Bus stop where I took a bus out of Texas and far away from that family to join relatives who’d agreed to house me until it was time to go to college in Chicago?