Just Look...

Just Look...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Stories

Last night was graduation night. It was one of my favorite nights of the year and a night that simultaneously also always breaks my heart a little. When I look at the kids crossing the stage on that night, I see stories crossing that stage. Some kids ham it up, some smile nervously, some beam with pride, some seem almost angry.... last night, one wept all the way across and down the steps. Some kids have families that whoop and holler, some get applause, some get the cheers of their classmates, a few get a standing ovation... and some cross to the polite applause of strangers. In each of these kids, there is a story .... really, two stories-- the story that got them to this point and the story that is yet to be written.

Over 16 years of graduations, I have seen so many stories play out and climax on that stage.

For many of our students, graduation is a natural ending to a rather effortless sequence. They had family support and friend support and teacher support and, while they may have had to work hard in some classes (chemistry, for me), it was a pretty positive and easy experience. I was that student. And for those students (and for me), I am so thankful that life has given them that gift. They walk across with pride on their faces and excitement and maybe a little nervousness about the future.

We have some students who have endured great tragedy in their lives. I don't know every single student who has graduated from CHS but of the ones I DO know, I can name every one of the kids who walked across the stage with one or both parents absent through death. I always tear up at the thought of how proud that mama or daddy would have been to see this day and how, even though that kid smiles a brave smile, he or she has to feel like part of his/her heart is missing.

We have students who have overcome physical hardships, who struggle every day to even get out of the bed, much less make it to school and endure a school day. I have had students whose physical struggles made me wonder how I ever would think I have the right to complain about not feeling well or being tired. I don't know what true tired even feels like with all of my body parts working as they are meant to do.

There are other students who walk across the stage having conquered nearly insurmountable odds, and yet they have come out unscathed and glowing with success. They are comfortable in the fact that they triumphed over their circumstances and they just exude a wisdom that is beyond most of us. I talked to another teacher last night about one such kid who will graduate in the next year or two. These are the kids who, when you hear their story, you are astounded because you never would have dreamed they had a life that difficult. These are also the kids who have a very matter-of-fact attitude about it, who are surprised that you are surprised they have come so far.

Some CHS students are graduating alone. There are kids I have taught, many more of them than you would believe, who have no one in the audience on graduation night. They are either on their own (and many have been for years already), their parents are not interested, or they are estranged. I have kids whose parents are sitting in a jail cell on graduation night, who haven't seen a parent in years, who aren't sure who their parents are, who have been raised bouncing from one foster home to another. Those kids break my heart because there are no pictures after the ceremony, no parties, no special gifts, just another night alone and another morning of hard work the next day.

Some students have spent their high school years feeling isolated. Some feel pulled between two cultural identities, limited by the struggles of living in a society that doesn't understand you and doesn't really try, unable to fully find the words you want to find to connect because your language isn't the same as theirs. Some struggle with acceptance, with emotional issues, with mental illnesses, with addictions already stronger than that of many adults. I have read the words of kids who say how desperately they want to connect with others but they can't seem to find the ways to do it. I have watched kids walk around the prom completely alone. Nothing makes me want to just swoop in and fix it (which I can't do and it wouldn't help) any more than kids who feel alone in a world of connections. I think that's what I love so much about Holocaust education, that I feel that maybe it combats this a little bit by raising up kids who will speak up and stand alongside and walk beside those who need it.

There are always a few to whom that diploma means the world, the ones who scraped by in most classes, some who spent some time away from school for various reasons, kids who didn't ever dream a high school graduation was in the cards for them, some who are the first high school graduates in their family, those who left school early to work or have a baby but finished the courses in time to walk with their class. I love to see those kids walk across. You can see the miracle and wonderment on their faces and many of them acknowledge those who helped them reach that point with a look, a smile, a nod, a hug.

Our kids are our kids. Period. The hard workers, the brainiacs, the just-do-enough-to-get-by's and then-only-barelies, the ones everything comes harder for, those shining with success and those with deep regrets.... they are ours. And their stories matter. I spent the majority of this year preaching that all that you have in this world is your integrity and your voice and the world needs to see and hear both. I teach English, so I teach the stories. I teach the stories on the pages and I teach the stories sitting in the desks.

And no matter where each kid fell last night in the descriptions above, no matter what their story was in getting to that place, I hope they all know that the next chapter starts today. I told one of mine the other day that he is so much more than his past, than his family situation, than his circumstances. He is NOT defined by the story of those around him. He is writing his OWN story. They may leave that school, but they will never leave our hearts and I pray for them and we cheer them on and I hope that their stories only get brighter and brighter, that the kids who have struggled will find some ease, that the lonely kids will find company, that the kids who got here as a result of grace and mercy will find a way to show it to someone else, and that those who have suffered loss will find peace. I pray that every one of them will find success, passion, and laughter. And I am tremendously grateful that, even if only for a few pages, my story intertwined with theirs.

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