I’ll never forget my middle school graduation. There we were, the entire graduating class, on stage singing our graduation theme song, in the same cafeteria/auditorium where we’d had dozens of assemblies, dances, watched movies, and so much more, for so many years. In a rush it came to me: This would be my last time on that stage.
I’d had a death scene on that stage, when we did an extraordinarily bad play about the “Titanic.” (I was no Leonardo DiCaprio.) I had done a Native-American dance on that stage during the Bicentennial celebration that was celebrated the entire year of 1976. I had even gone up there to accept the “Class Clown Award,” introduced as “the next Steve Martin” (that didn’t pan out either) by the seventh grade teacher/presenter.
The song we were singing was “Starting Over,” by John Lennon. The onetime Beatle had been killed just six months before, and his murder hung over our class in an odd way. It was this song that made many of us realize the world that was waiting for us was as real as it was scary and dangerous. Our music class immediately turned into “Beatles 101” and the Fab Four’s music overcame that darkness, a light cutting through it, much like the music had when first recorded over a decade earlier.
Choosing “Starting Over” was a no-brainer. Not only was it our way of acknowledging this tragic end to the life of a guy who ironically wrote songs with titles like “Give Peace A Chance,” but it also meant a whole lot to our music teacher, a man profoundly affected by the Beatles’ music and, most definitely, Lennon’s murder.
And, lastly, it just worked. We were starting over. In high school. And largely without each other. Some were moving on to Sacred Heart Academy, and others to Notre Dame High School. Some to Eli Whitney Technical School, while others were headed to Saint Mary’s High School. If this wasn’t starting over we sure didn’t know what was!
The picture-taking afterwards went on forever, along with the signing of yearbooks, the horsing around on the lawn that caused our mothers to scream at us that we were going to get grass stains on our “good pants.” Then, we all went home, for celebrations with our families, to eat cake and open cards.
I remember climbing into the back of my father’s car and finally understanding the meaning of the word “bittersweet.” That’s exactly what it was — I looked at my school for the last eight years as we pulled away from it and felt an enormous lump in my throat, but I was also very excited about the even bigger school (Notre Dame in West Haven) that I would be attending come fall. Especially since I had barely made it in; I was waitlisted for an excruciating few weeks where my father couldn’t let a day pass without reminding me that I had made my bed thanks to poor study habits. “I seriously cannot remember one time I saw you doing homework,” he’d say. Daily.
What’s more, there was the summer in between middle school and high school to be excited about.
However, I was keenly aware who I would be seeing a lot of that summer and well into the fall, who would drop off a bit come fall - as we’d be attending different schools — and who I not only wouldn’t see that summer, but maybe never even again in my life. My mother said I was being melodramatic when I expressed this, but I can tell you right now that at least a handful of those former classmates — both male and female — who I went to school with every day for eight years, I have not seen even just once since graduation night.
So, while I learned the meaning of bittersweet that wonderful night in June 1981, I imagine the word my son learned the meaning of upon his recent shoreline drive-thru graduation was anti-climactic. Yeow. What was that anyway?
While I feel for the principals and teachers - and everyone else involved — who made the decision regarding both middle and high school graduations during COVID, some just plain got it all wrong.
I have one friend whose daughter graduated middle school and they all just sat on the football field six feet apart; another friend’s son graduated the Air Force Academy and it, too, was outdoors and televised. They got to toss their caps and everything. Who’d have thought that could become a special treat? Or — ugh — virtual?
My son was the picture of indifference when I read off how his graduation would play out. Meaning, it did not matter to him if he even attended. The administration must have aware this could be the case with many of the kids, as they acknowledged “getting your diploma to you another way” should the drive-thru not work for whatever reason.
But, we persevered, and it was no different than any other long(-ish) line at, say, a fast food restaurant. Except there were no McNuggets for the drive home, with a tasty dipping sauce to gently bathe them in.
Their graduation song may as well have been “Wrecking Ball.”