Last Sunday I had the privilege of delivering the John Bapst Memorial High School commencement speech. As my flight home landed on the familiar airstrip at Bangor International Airport, I felt nervous, excited — and I couldn’t stop wondering how I could correct the very serious error that had been made in which I was mistaken for a full-fledged adult. In short, I was in a perfect state to understand exactly what your average high school senior is feeling right about now.
Adulthood is marked, officially, with many obvious milestones: graduations, your 18th birthday, voting, your first full-time job. But realizing that you’re an adult — and feeling like one — comes slowly, often in far more subtle, unexpected steps. Such as the first few times you consciously pass up a wide-open opportunity to bicker with your siblings and ask them about their day instead. Or when your parents request your recipe after you cook something for them. Or the day you realize that a few of your old middle school friends are now middle school teachers.
Listening to my former high school teachers toss the banter around as they wrestled with the unruly black academic robes — graduation robes that I will never be able to see as somber and serious again — was one such moment.
I’ve been to several graduations over the years — my sister’s, my friends’ and my own. Memories of graduations, whether as a spectator or a marching graduate, are dominated by images of a line of variegated shoes poking out from the monotony of robes and smiling, nervous faces searching for their families in the audience. Sometimes “Pomp and Circumstance” was played live; other times it was piped in, a tinny recording from the corner of the school gym. The important part was always making sure that no one tripped. Last weekend, though, was a new one for me. This time I stood on the other end of things, waiting with the faculty, rather than the students, to march in. I felt a little bit like I had sneaked into the teachers lounge and was breaking the rules. Except that I actually was supposed to be there.
“So, how nervous are you?” I was asked.
“Well,” I replied, “if all else fails and I decide to bolt, at least I’m familiar enough with the building to know where all of the exits are.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” another former teacher told me. “Hey, is your sister here?”
“Yeah, how are your folks?” asked another.
One of the things about teachers in small communities is that they see not just classes go by, but whole families: first students, then siblings of students, then children of students. Unlike the larger classrooms of big cities (where students pass through metal detectors on the way to class), teachers in small, rural schools not only will notice if you’ve skipped class, they also are likely to know your parents and to tell them about it. My future high school teachers were household names years before I even matriculated; I had begun hearing stories about them and their classes from my older sister and her friends when I was in middle school, and I had already met a few at Christmas fairs and open houses. By the time I was a high school student myself, I was as indelibly marked by family resemblance as by my last name on the attendance sheet.
“Yeah, my parents are here and my sister,” I said. “She’s a teacher now, too, you know.”
Teachers in Maine watch whole towns grow up, carrying mental snapshots of families, each picture taken at the same age and point in their life. We, in turn, carry with us their pet peeves, pet topics, bad jokes and interests. Years after graduating, students from the same school can bond over having once spent a year in professor So-and-So’s class. Whether they intended to be or not, teachers become the warp threads on the loom of generations of students.
When I start hearing my sister, now a teacher herself, mention that she is beginning to see siblings of her very first students in her classes, I know that it’s official: We’re adults.
Or at least we’re a little closer to it than we were the last time we decided that.
As I waited for our cue to begin marching in last weekend, sandwiched between the deans and the double line of black-robed teachers, I wondered whether this was anything like how some of my friends felt when they became teachers.
Hundreds of high school seniors walked across school stages and accepted diplomas last weekend, tossing tasseled hats into the air and bolting as fast as they could toward whatever is next. I, too, tossed a tasseled hat into the air, if only in my mind — one of many, many milestones that I have noted to mark my growing up. And, I’m sure, not the last.
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