I’m not a crier, but still, I had to fight the urge to have a complete meltdown at my son’s graduation this weekend. The good news is that I could keep a tight lid on the tears as my third and final child graduated from college.
I’ve been to many of my kids’ graduations over the years, and each time, I dab at the accumulated moisture in my eyes and collect myself lest I embarrass everyone, including me. I know where a single breach in my well-constructed dam will lead, and it won’t be pretty, so instead, I focus on the minutia. Where are we eating, meeting, and staying, and what time are we doing it? Anything to take my mind off of the enormity of the moment.
But the urge to let an ocean of tears flow on such a joyous day is powerful.
Why we cry (photo courtesy of author).
1. Because we remember the hollow, empty feeling that follows graduation. One minute you are a member of your school community, and the next, you are an alum, and the commencement speakers are saying things like, “Safe travels, come back and visit soon and often.” In a split second, the proverbial rug has been yanked.
You don’t really belong here anymore, they are saying from the podium, and although they are saying it in the nicest way possible, it’s impossible not to hear the message that in a stunning turn, you have been reassigned from member to former member. The gulf between current and former is vast, and if you’ve embraced your campus as home, you are now essentially “homeless.” We parents can tell you over and over that new experiences will replace the old and that a vast world awaits you, but in this moment we see the void in your eyes and there’s not a darn thing we can do to fill the emptiness.
2. Because we just can’t believe you’ve gotten from there to here. How is it possible that a mere 22 years ago, we held you in the palm of our hands, and now you stand there in your full regalia? Long ago, we were tasked with keeping you alive, and not only did we do it, but here you are — a graduate, an adult.
There’s a powerful feeling of otherworldliness about it all because all the things — the millions and millions of things (and I’m not exaggerating) that got you to this point come flooding back. From infancy through childhood to the more recent angst over college choices, drop-off, choice of major, tests missed, quizzes failed, friendships formed and lost, roommates loved or despised, bags packed and then forgotten at home. So many pixels have led to this exact moment, and when we see you in your cap and gown, we remember them all.
3. Because we see your friends and love them for loving you. Oh, how we love them for loving you and you for loving them. You’ve created something much more than simply a learning community here. You’ve established deeply loving, caring, meaningful relationships and that makes our hearts soar because we know that if you can be so loved and so loving, we have surely done something right.
But we also know that as surely as water washes away sand, those bonds that now seem impenetrable will loosen. Not all of them and not completely, but many of them, perhaps most. You can’t replicate growing together, living together, being on campus together, and you can’t go back. As you go on, some of the affection you feel for your friends will shift, fade and refocus on others.
4. Because we hope and pray that the work you choose will be satisfying, but school is school, and work is work. And we know that you will never again be as clearly a master of your fate as you are right now. Your time will no longer be completely your own. Your wings will be clipped, as you give yourself over to a career, or the institutions you will join, the partners you will commit to, or the families you will build.
5. And finally, we cry because we are so proud, so damn proud that it actually hurts.
Graduation day may be the definition of bittersweet. We are deeply, deeply grateful that you have gotten here. It’s an accomplishment that we do not for one-second take for granted. We know that so much had to go right to get here. Mingled with joy, there is a certain sadness for what has been and will never be again. We know you feel it. We feel it too. Endings, new beginnings, and change are hard for all of us.
Just know that we love you, we believe in you and we will continue to be here with you every step of the way as a wide world awaits your unique and precious gifts.
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