On The Road: Future Shock and Other Truths of High School Graduation

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Honestly, I didn’t see it coming. Sometimes, life’s like that. You’re just minding your own business and then, wham, out of nowhere you get hit with it — a metaphor, a memory, an ironic confluence of fate and emotion.

Or perhaps just a stark reminder of the passage of time.

For me, it came early last week as I was on my way to work from East Hampton to Southampton, driving along the twisting, turning Jermain Avenue route that leads through Sag Harbor. Sometimes, I mix it up by taking a less traveled byway, especially when I can see up ahead that traffic is insane where Route 114 meets Jermain, as it often is. But on this day and at this time, it was mercifully quiet. I was thankful to find that the school crowds usually tying up this stretch of roadway in the morning had officially gone on summer vacation.

Then, as I rounded the S-curve in front of Pierson High School, I saw it. The modest risers, the decorative lattice dividers, the freshly mown lawn all ready for the big day.

Of course. Graduation 2019.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I drove past the school. Unexpected, unsolicited, unwanted — all of which is why, in hindsight, it was probably unavoidable.

Back in May 2001 when we brought our newborn daughter home from the hospital, my husband, Adam, and I did the math. Twenty-nineteen. It was a year that seemed firmly planted in the distant sci-fi future, in “A Space Odyssey,” “Soylent Green,” “Future Shock” kind of way. But here it is, the far-off high school graduation date that we felt would never arrive in those early days of sleepless nights and dirty diapers is now upon us.

As I continued on my way that day, what I found most surprising about my emotional outbreak at the sight of the graduation set-up is the fact that my daughter, Sophie, doesn’t even go to Pierson. She’s a Bonacker and last Friday evening, became an official graduate of East Hampton High School.

So why did the tears well up out of nowhere? Why did the sight of those risers on the Pierson lawn in Sag Harbor elicit in me a reaction that the white tent set up for the same purpose on the East Hampton High field did not?

I chalk it up to the road not taken. Sophie attended pre-school in Sag Harbor with many of this year’s Pierson graduates, but since we live in East Hampton, once elementary school started we went our separate way. Honestly, now that they’re all 18, I wouldn’t even recognize most of those preschoolers today. But I know their names and still recall their 3-year-old faces. And that’s what hit me — the fact that those toddlers would soon be standing firmly on those risers ready to collect their diplomas and take on the world.

I guess this is what parents do — get weepy over stuff like this. And while I’d like to say that Sophie was as emotional about her high school graduation as I apparently was, it’s not true. The truth is, she’s over high school, done with all of it and ready to move on, which tells me that, as parents, we must have done something right.

Therein lies the brutal irony of parenthood. You only know you’re successful when your offspring no longer needs you and is ready to venture forth on her own. Come mid-August, my only child will do just that when she starts her freshman year at the College of Charleston. It’s a new world that I won’t be exploring with her, and though she admits to being anxious about the grown-up responsibilities coming her way, I quickly remind her that it’s not exactly adulthood when your parents are ensuring you have easy access to food and a safe place to sleep each night.

Still, she’ll need to get herself to class on time and pass physics and advanced math on her own, so there is that.

When I reflect back on this last year of high school for my daughter, it occurs to me that, subconsciously or not, there has been a marked separation process occurring on my part. For example, I only signed up for a couple parent/teacher conferences and didn’t even check the grading portal much. I didn’t check her homework, never called the principal to complain or express concern and I still haven’t seen her final grades. The diploma tells me pretty much everything I need to know.

More separation came in April, this time on Sophie’s part, when she traveled with a group of fellow students and two teachers to a tiny village in western Nepal where they worked to build a school. While we’ve traveled fairly extensively as a family over the years, this was the first time she had gone to a remote destination on her own. It’s the first serious travel experience we didn’t share, to a country and indeed, a continent, neither Adam nor I have been to. It’s all hers and she says it was the best trip of her life.

I’m glad to hear it. She’s 18 now, and on her way to becoming the person she will one day be through new adventures that will have nothing to do with us.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of Robert Frost and his poem The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I feel as if I am that one traveler, destined to take my own path while Sophie has branched off and is heading down the other. We’re at the fork in the road and my offspring is heading toward the undergrowth. Soon, she’ll be out of my sight more than she’ll be in it. I guess ultimately, that’s what’s made me so emotional about this graduation thing. It’s the parting of ways, the end of our shared experiences as she travels a road that will now become hers alone.

In the end, all I can hope for is that together, my husband and I have raised a kind person, a good soul who has a true moral compass and compassion for others. Someone who in the years ahead will leave her mark on the world.

In the meantime, Sophie has informed us that on Tuesday, she’s traveling into Brooklyn to get a tattoo. While my husband strongly voiced his opposition to the idea, I reminded him that she’s an adult now … and this is her first of many marks, albeit a literal one, on the world.

Next step? Getting her registered to vote.

Congratulations to the class of 2019!

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