To my knowledge, other than a Class Graduation Photo, I have only one picture of my High School Graduation, and that is to my discredit. Worse yet, I have little memory of it. In my haste and immaturity, I was oblivious to the epic nature of the moment before me. I was completely unaware of my surroundings, as well as the brevity and weight of this one moment in time. To this day, it remains a point of contrition and remorse for me. You may get several graduation ceremonies in your life…Pre-School, Elementary School, Jr. High School, College…but you only get one High School Graduation. This moment crashes into your life, lands briefly, and seems to exit as quickly as it came.
I so wish someone had told me about how this moment sets itself apart so distinctly, and is the culmination of so many shared moments with people of great value in your life. I would simply offer to any High School Senior these words:
In the rush of the moment, you will feel the push of wanting to blow through your remaining days of High School and get on with the next chapter of your life. You will be saturated with the hurriedness that will threaten to make this moment normal and part of the program. I implore you, do not take the bait. This moment comes to you but once in your life. It is not ordinary, and it was not intended to be that way. It is one of the few moments where life is lifted above the ordinary. But the responsibility to grab this extraordinary moment will be yours. If you don’t pause to grab it and let yourself be absorbed into it, it will be nothing more than ordinary, and you will have missed one of life’s most precious gifts.
Slow down, absorb every sound, every sight, every smell, every emotion, and every person. You must let yourself feel and experience this moment. You cannot run through it. Some of the people sitting beside you, you will never see again. Many of them you grew up with, and as good as friends as you were, most everything will be different after this moment. You must acknowledge the people who helped get you here. Don’t be afraid to smile, shout, and celebrate. Most certainly, if you feel your tear ducts springing forth to let the tears overwhelming you in the moment come forward, you must not be afraid to hold them back. They are not a sign of weakness, they are a sign that you’ve captured a moment that few capture, and that you refuse to let it pass you by.
And finally, when it’s over, against conventional wisdom, by all means look back. Take one last look at the moment, the school, your friends and family, and thank God for the 18 years that brought you here and that you got to experience them. I promise you, as much as you may be ready to go forward, as life passes, you will realize how special they were, and there will be days you will long to go back.
Only four short years had passed since my High School Graduation. But thankfully, in those years, I had grown up and matured a bit. I now stood in a long line of college graduates waiting to march victoriously onto the Academic Quad and receive our diplomas. As the marching music began, suddenly, I was overwhelmed with emotions I could not explain. Just minutes before this moment, someone had leaned over to me and said, “It’s the best of times and the worst of times.” Strangely, it was the first time I had ever heard this term. But in this moment, I knew exactly what it meant. Even more concretely, I felt exactly what it meant. But at least this time, I was thankful I was aware of the moment before me. And yes, I reached out, grabbed it, and squeezed it for all it was worth.
Just one day earlier, I was in the same place with my fellow classmates for commencement rehearsal. We were walking through and practicing for the big day. Professors were explaining how everything would progress. We were then instructed to be seated. The occasion that arrived next was one I had heard about, a Wingate tradition, but I had only thought it to be a myth until it happened before my very eyes. Long-time Dean and Professor to the University, Dean Haskins stood up and after a few challenging words, he illustriously began to sing the song “Precious Memories.” As he started, we weren’t sure whether to be amused or reverential. But as he sang, neither happened. All of a sudden, it was if someone had hit the pause button on life, and we were all completely still. In a span of about 3-4 minutes of that song, my entire college experience flashed before my eyes and heart. My future stood ready to assume its role in the handoff. It seemed as if the same was happening to every graduate gathered that day.
Dean Haskins sang the song without accompaniment. His style of southern pronouncement over the word “linger” naturally changed it to sound more like “lingah.” But aptly, it drove home the point. As he hung on every “lingah,” we all hung with him.
Precious Memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul. And oh, how they saturated my soul and emotions that moment and that entire day. I was grateful for what I had experienced and what was to come. But I have to admit, I did not want to leave this place or these people. I had found that moment where life was lifted above the ordinary.
In the stillness of the midnight, precious sacred scenes unfold. I had become an adult with these people. I had experienced the highs and lows of collegiate athletics with so many of them. We had lived together, played together, laughed together, traveled together, and studied together. In this time, I had forged what would be some of the most enduring and best friendships of my life. They had become more than friends, they were family now.
Precious Memories fill my soul. Dean Haskins stopped singing, the air remained still and silent for only a brief moment. Everything was about to change. Nothing would ever be the same. I was saying goodbye, but I was also leaving with something that made me better than I was when I first arrived. It really was the best and worst of times.
Back to graduation day. The graduation music called us forward. It was time to begin the ceremony. I realized this would be my final moment with this group of people in this setting and context. I was glad for what we had accomplished and how far we had come. I was sad that it was ending and that we were all going our separate ways. I was sad to leave the University, and even so many of my professors and mentors. But I was glad to be leaving with something that made me better.
I looked to my rear. There was my family who had sacrificed so much to get me to this point. There were my professors who poured into me, many of whom have since retired, and a few who have passed. I was surrounded by people with whom I had shared life experience with for four years. Many of whom I still share life with to this day. I heard every musical note, I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, the shade cascading across the grassy ground beneath our white chairs. I smiled, I laughed, I remembered, I shouted, I danced, and yes, I even let a few tears come forth. These epic moments do not come lightly for all involved. They are not intended to be ordinary. They must be felt and experienced for all that they are meant to be.
Tassels moved from right to left. The announcement that you’re a College Graduate now! The toss of the cap into the air. Handshakes, hugs, final words, and the stark realization that even though we express with great intent, “Let’s keep in touch!”, life will rush us into its frenzied cycle, and touch would be lost to social media, and nothing would ever be the same.
The campus had mostly emptied from the day’s graduation events. I am now one of the few remaining, packing up the last pieces from my dorm room. Yet this time, I would not return the next Fall. The door shuts, one last walk down the hall. The car is in drive, I am riding through campus one final time, yet for the first time as a graduate. Most of my classmates are gone. Though we promised, many of us will lose touch.
Exit approaching one final time. Yes, I stop to look back. One last look, one last embrace of every moment, every memory, every experience. These moments ride on the winds of time ever so briefly. But they are not intended to be ordinary. You have to grab them. Thank you God that I had them. There are now other extraordinary moments that lie ahead.
Whether it’s you or your child, the graduation must be experienced for all that it is. Do not just let it be normal. Embrace it and squeeze it for everything it holds. These feelings are meant to be felt and these moments are meant to be experienced. We cannot rush through them. When extraordinary comes along and offers to pull you out of the ordinary, always take it up on its offer. Graduation is one of those times.
I have returned to Wingate University many times in the years since 1993. It is still a special place to me. More than that, the people I met during my time there are special to me, and forever have their names etched into the history of my life. But as many times as I go back, nothing is as it was that warm Spring day of May 8, 1993. Dean Haskins has long since passed. Sadly, I’m told the song is no longer part of Wingate’s graduation tradition. But for those of us who had that moment, it’s really true. These memories are precious and they still flood the soul. How they linger.