In the past few weeks, classmates of my daughter — kids I've known since they were in diapers, some of them — have shown up on my Facebook feed, clad in long, flowing gowns and wearing big, flat squares on their heads.
As their smiling faces paraded across my computer screen, I'll admit, I teared up. And as each one passed by, I kept thinking, “Oh, boy… What am I going to do when it's my turn to watch my daughter walk across the stage, shake the dean's hand and head toward the next chapter in her life?”
Well. Whether it was preoccupation with capturing the moment, herding all the family members from place to place during the graduation weekend, or just plain denial… I didn't lose it. Despite the fact that I am, as I recently told a friend, a “proud-crier” — nothing makes me cry harder than sheer pride in something a loved one or a friend accomplishes — I just kind of sat there and let the moment wash over me.
Then the weekend was over and we came home, exhausted, but proud.
A bit after we got home, my daughter sent me a video.
There was the familiar scene: a stage, a crowd of family members, a speakers' podium. The figure behind the podium was hard to see, but as he spoke, I recognized the voice.
It belonged to one of my daughter's friends from as far back as middle school. You know, middle school — that period of life where pretty much everyone is just trying to get through without being the most awkward kid on the planet.
The voice was a bit deeper but still his. As he spoke, I could hear the smile. I could hear the joy. I could hear the love. Most of all, I heard the confidence.
And I lost it. Oh, man, did I lose it. My friends, the dam broke. Hard. I guess it was partly a result of all the bottled up feelings I hadn't, somehow, been able to let go of during my daughter's graduation ceremonies finally finding a weak spot in my exterior and bursting through. But, most of all, it was my old nemesis — the proud cry.
I remember crying when this young man and my daughter, along with several other amazingly smart, creative kids, competed in a statewide problem-solving competition. As their coach, I was so stinking proud of how much they had overcome to get there. Leaders in the making, learning how to work together, how to work a nailgun, how to advocate for themselves. They simply rocked it, and my pride in them overflowed.
Then came high school, and all the anxiety and drama and self-discovery that comes with it. I watched as my daughter and her friends navigated it like a flock of geese, each one taking turns at the lead so the others could rest a bit, but all of them flying together, reaching their destination safely, for the most part, with only a few ruffled feathers.
Four years ago, when she graduated from high school, we reflected on how she and her classmates were the youngest Americans to really have had any awareness of what was going on during 9/11. They were first-graders that day, when they were put on buses to go home several hours early, with only vague explanations as to why from teachers and staff. She recalls other kids on the bus saying something about “a fire in New York City.”
I knew that day that the world she would grow up in had been forever changed. On her 16th birthday, we visited the site of the World Trade Center, where work on the memorial had just begun. Two years later, we revisited it as she began her senior project, a report on how Homeland Security had changed in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. Clearly, all that had transpired there had left its mark on that little 6-year-old and on the young woman she was becoming.
We hear and read a lot these days about millennials and how they are a generation of “snowflakes” who need a “safe space” to retreat to when times get rough. Well, I am here to testify that that is a bunch of hooey.
I've watched my daughter and her friends become advocates for people who are less fortunate, or who are different. I've seen them speak truth to power. I've seen them overcome extreme obstacles, loss, fears, cruelty and abuse. I've seen them dream big dreams. Huge dreams, like that of a young man from South Korea who, at an orientation session at my daughter's college four years ago, told the school's director that he wanted to return to Korea one day and become the president who helps reunite the two Koreas.
To which the director, former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno, responded, “We will do everything we can to help you accomplish that.”
Last weekend, Sesno spoke to that young man's peers as they prepared to graduate. (The young Korean student wasn't there, as he is currently serving 16 months in the Korean military.) Sesno told them that the world is pretty broken right now and urged them to go “fix it.”
Wow. Tall order, that.
Sesno let them know that he has full confidence that they are talented and smart and passionate enough to do just that. He's right. These young people, after all, saw the worst the world could be at an age when they were just learning to ride a bike and tie their shoes.
They also saw a country get up the next morning and keep doing what it always does… and I truly believe that the first-graders of 2001 took that strength, made it theirs, and will carry it forward with them.
So, as I watched that formerly unsure kid step out onto that stage as a confident, strong young man, as I heard him sing — not just sing, but sing a capella, y'all — I lost it.
Yep. I know the courage that it took, the strength it took, for that kid to be who he is. And I know what it took for him and all his peers to step out of the darkness under which they began their schooling and to be there for each other and to be there for this broken country of theirs. And I proud-cried. Yes, I did.