ONE SUMMER NIGHT I had the terrific honor of speaking at a local high school graduation ceremony. Well, it wasn’t really a ceremony; it was more like a festival. The stadium rang with hoops and hollers and cat whistles; high-fives were popping all over the place. It was nothing like my high school graduation. Back then we were stiff and stoic, accepting our diplomas like knighthood from the Queen of England. In contrast, last night felt more like a Greek wedding at Mardi Gras. No one was waiting for permission to have a good time. I like this new spirit of celebration. I love the sharing of human emotion: the joy, the anticipation, the pride, the tinge of sadness. It is all there, transparent and real. At the end of the program, after the names were called, after the mortarboards were flung, after the balloons were released and the fireworks discharged-after all that, I did not want to leave. I stood on the small stage and watched 3000 people storm the field.
I saw a 14-year-old boy with a punk hairdo wipe his eyes with the tail of his tee shirt. At first I thought he was dislodging an errant bug or eyelash. On second look I could see that his tears were streaming. He hugged his big sister and once again dried his eyes with the ready-made “handkerchief.”
I saw a tall, strapping young man call out to another graduate of equal size. He raised both arms high above his head, part in triumph, part in invitation for a hug. They embraced each other like two powerful sumo wrestlers.
“We sure as hell did,” said the other, lifting his friend off the ground.
I saw a pretty young lady who was a member of the small choir that sang during the program. I remembered her because I was touched by her struggle to keep her composure while singing. “Bless her heart,” I had thought. As she walked past me, I smiled. At that moment I was full of emotion, an eye blink away from losing it. She must have sensed that. Without saying a word, she grinned and gave me a splendid hug, firm and honest.
“I almost broke up while watching you sing,” I told her. And then I did lose it. We stood there for a moment, face to face, total strangers and, yet, equal participants in the human experience. I did not know then, nor do I know now, the name of that mature young woman, but I thank her for taking me in. Still I lingered. As I watched the crowd, I wished I could be everywhere all at once. I wanted to be sandwiched between every hug dispensed that night. I wanted to hear the words: the congratulations, the reconciliations, the remembrances, the dreams.
But soon, too soon, the crowd began to dwindle. Families returned to their homes, graduates found their parties, and I stood on the fifty-yard line of the high school football field and thought, “It does not get any better than that.”
Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile-when the tears are dried and the battles forgotten. Only the spirit of each youth is important. The potential harnessed in those sturdy, young bodies is enough to power our dreams, heal the world, and move this 1964 high school graduate to tears of perfect joy.
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