Remember Grads: Your Big Day Isn’t Just About You
My best friend’s son graduated elementary school the other day and although I wasn’t able to attend I made sure that I sent her an essay on Facebook, as well as lengthy text congratulating the both of them. I wanted to make a point that I was celebrating her endurance and effort as much as his accomplishments. For the past few school years I’ve witnessed all the mornings they ran late, missed buses or worked on science projects until the wee morning hours. For the past three years we’ve both been moms together; me with a toddler and her with a grade-schooler and then recently also a toddler. We’d call each other in the mornings since we knew we could at least chat and make sure one another were alive and doing halfway decent as we rushed the kids to their destinations. I’d hear her yelling at her boys as she ironed shirts and poured bowls of cereal telling the oldest he couldn’t wear only his brand new GAP hoodie since it was 20 degrees outside, all the while her two-year-old would be throwing Cheerios at her head and refusing to get in his stroller.
As a single mom she’s tackled most of this on her own since she was teenager. But every day she got them to school. Even if they were running late. Even when she didn’t have a ride. Even if it meant climbing into the back of an expensive Uber while balancing a solar system made out of produce on her knee, she got them there. There were tears, report card conferences, basketball equipment that she wasn’t done paying for before the boy lost interest and decided football was his game instead. There were weeks when she kept it together every morning, before bursting into tears as soon as they were behind school doors from stress and exhaustion. So when she got to see her oldest son walk down the aisle last Friday and leave elementary school behind, I made sure to remind her that he had made it through and a large part of it was due to all the sacrifices and inconveniences that she had made over the years.
Not too long ago, the literal “pomp and circumstance” of graduation ceremonies seemed pointless to me. Just give me my grades and diploma so I can be out this bihhh. In high school, I just didn’t get graduation practice or performances. Why am I singing and doing the most for the audience after I just finished investing MY time, energy and hard work? Shouldn’t someone be belting out Mariah Carey’s “Hero” for me? Of course, I would hear valedictorians mention how the support and commitment of parents and families was the reason why me and my coeds were standing on that stage at that very moment, but it still was a struggle to understand why there was so much emphasis on family support instead of my individual achievements. (Look, I was a high school senior. I was selfish, feeling myself and probably only cared about laying up with my boyfriend later that night instead of enjoying the first few moments of being a high school graduate).
Graduating undergrad was totally different. There were no performances. There was no boyfriend for me to run to seconds after tossing my tassel in the air. But there was the moment afterwards when my parents handed me a bouquet of flowers while we took pictures and the look in my father’s eyes where suddenly I realized my degree was just as much about his accomplishments as much as it was about mine. Both of my parents have Associate’s degrees and were able to build a pretty decent life and stable careers with their education. But it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I experienced the anxiety that can a come with tuition costs, safety and wanting your child to learn and grown in places and situations that bring out the best in them. So when it came to celebrating the result of all of my hard work, I kept in mind that behind every graduate is a whole support system working together day in and day out that should be celebrated as well.
I say this because as much as the day is about the student who worked hard to make down the aisle, you have to consider that many on that stage are first-generation graduates, from both high school and college. A few weeks ago a viral video of a girl twerking across the stage while receiving her diploma was at the center of quite a bit of criticism. As much as graduation can be the time where you finally release all of the stress, routine and structure and lose your entire mind and be yourself, the truth is many of you are representing legacies. Creative Drake and Cardi B quotes on caps and Milly Rocking with your MSW is cool and all but there’s a certain selflessness that comes with sharing your moment with family members that helped paved the way for it, but didn’t necessarily have their own. It’s also something to keep in mind for folks that would rather do away with the day all together and skip the ceremony.
It’s a concept that one school has taken into consideration when revamping their own commencement ceremony. In a 2014 essay posted by NBC News Maria Ortega fondly describes her experience at Fresno State University participating in their Annual Latino Commencement Celebration (LCC), a ceremony that also honors parents along with graduates in a small, but special way. She shares that as a first-generation immigrant, the day is about more than her accomplishments:
“In this commencement, when we finally get to that stage, it’s not just our names that are uttered but also those of our parents. Hearing my name followed by “hija de Patricia Reyes” (daughter of Patricia Reyes) almost brought tears to my eyes.
No other ceremony recognizes our parents, the original DREAMERS, who sacrificed and toiled through sweat, blood and tears to get us this far. It takes an entire family to get us through college, and to be able to celebrate that is the best reward.
It’s a very special celebration, not only because we’re graduating but because this marks a huge milestone for our communities. In addition to our immediate family, there are cousins, uncles, nieces, grandparents, and friends who travel from all over the state to see us walk.”
The ceremony recognizes the huge part family members and support systems in general play in the success of a graduate and allows those receiving their degrees time to reflect on their history, their heritage, and how the part they play in a world goes way beyond themselves.
Look if there’s anything I can appreciate it’s a creative, fun graduation day. The day doesn’t have to be defined by tears, stiff graduation marches and a million renditions of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”, Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” or God forbid Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. But as ratchet or righteous as you want to be, keep in mind that everyone’s success to some degree is the result of not just your individual efforts, but the motivation of those surrounding you. The ones who made it a point to do more listening then venting at happy hour about that professor who irks your whole soul. The spouse who regularly rotated a menu of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese for your kids so you could get in a night class. The sibling who dropped out of school to make sure you made it to class on time each day. This is for them too. And as long as someone is screaming and clapping for you while you walk across that stage after blatantly being instructed not to, that’s a win for the whole family.
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.