I love graduation. It is that culminating moment when all of the blood, sweat, tears, anger, laughers, failure and successes pay off. It doesn’t matter how much grief a student has given me over the years, seeing him or her walk a stage and receive a diploma makes all of the pain worth it.
My own graduation consisted of 707 students. We had to hold it in the old basketball arena because there were so many of us. Hendersonville had about 400 each year. And we all prayed that it wouldn’t rain so that we would not have to stuff everyone in the gym. On those rainy days belligerent family and friends elbowed aside voluntold teachers who were assigned to doors and told only those with passes were allowed through. But during the nice days graduation was held on the football field and the only annoyance were the friends and family who clearly didn’t listen or care that the principal had asked that they refrain from cheering until the end so that all names could be heard.
Imagine my surprise when I showed up to my first UAS graduation to find 20 chairs on risers on the auditorium stage. No one pushed or shoved. All got a seat. All were calm and collected as my first class of UAS Seniors walked the short walk to receive up to three diplomas (IB, American, and Uruguayan).
This year, the seats numbered 24 and 10 of them were my IB babies for two solid years. I love these kids, even the ones who drove me nutters with late work and absences. These are the kids who made me my kick cancer video. They brought me hand-sanitizer and joke books while I was sick. They cared about their IB scores but also about being kind and open-minded. They loved to debate and never said no to games. Even the ones who I didn’t have in class became important people in my daily routine. This class is gloriously funny and smart and one of my favorite classes of all time.
Graduation begins with the teacher walk. We all awkwardly link arms and walk two-by-two down the aisle. Then come the kids standing tall and confident. I say tall because the girls all compete to see who can wear the tallest heals and not fall over. They are gowned young men and women. They make their way onto the stage and stand erect for the playing of the American and Uruguayan national anthems. I always get goosebumps at this point. I love the merging of the two nationalities, as well as the numerous flags behind the students representing the countries from which they come.
Our principals says a few words, then the director, then the USA ambassador. Awards are given and the salutatorian and valedictorian are called. Then one member of the class, who was chosen by the class, gives the Senior speech. This year was Seba Stein. Seba is going to be a doctor. Seba is super smart and wonderfully kind. Seba decides to dedicate a whole section of his speech to me and my cancer fight just to see if he can make me cry. That little booger. He succeeded.
Then comes the valedictorian speech given by Jake Wilkins. Jake is the cool kid who also manages to be valedictorian. When you meet him you think frat boy slacker. Then you realize just how brilliant he really is. Jake talks about all the people in his class and even those who moved to other schools. His speech is poignant and funny. Oh, and there is another section devoted to me.
By this point I am crying and touched and angry all at the same time. I am crying because it has been a very tough year for all of us but we made it. I am touched because these kiddos did not have to recognize me at all. And I am so angry that they had to deal with all of this just as much as I did. In no universe should kids and cancer be in the same sentence. So basically, in my universe we shouldn’t even have this disease. But no one made me goddess so I guess I just hope that through all of this comes a passed on strength. If heaven forbid one of these babies deals with this madness first hand, they will remember that they can push through and deal with it and still be themselves because there is no other option.
As I wiped the tears away for a second time, Gabriel was making his way to the stage. He was chosen as the faculty keynote by the students and I cannot think of a more perfect person to represent the kiddos. He had them laughing and sighing with love. He had us shaking out heads in agreement as he praised the endurance and compassion of the class. And he got a nice little moment of standing up for the local teacher cause. It was a great speech that hopefully they kids will remember forever.
Finally, my favorite part. The handing of diplomas. Because we are such a small school we get to be a little more personal. Each student is called. Their home country is named along with how many years they have attended UAS. Their future university and life plan is also mentioned. For example, Victoria Zoboli is from Uruguay. She has attended UAS for 15 years. She will be attending the University of Montevideo where she will study Education with the intention of working as a primary teacher. Let us congratulate Victoria Zoboli. Then we all clap, she shakes hands of the director and the head board member, comes to the center of the stage for a picture with her degrees and on to the next. By the time all 24 are called, we are only about an hour and a half in. I’m a crying mess. The procession is led out and we all gather in the hallway for refreshments and congratulations.
UAS is a tiny school. At times, it can be a little too tiny. But when it comes to graduation, we have a really big heart. We care about these kids. We have nurtured and loved them along with their parents. For some, we are a home away from home. And I feel very privileged to be a part of it all.