Senior Graduation is a two-day affair at my school. Both celebrations are held in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Michigan Avenue. It is the largest Catholic church in the Americas, and, on Easter Sunday’s past, my family and I would lend our souls to the crowded gathering of the faithful and nearly faithful. It is a beautiful structure with magnificent tile work, ornate glass, and rising arches that reek of majesty.
It’s one of those places where you can’t help but feel holy, or at least serene. The bright quiet always reminds me of my days as an altar boy reciting a Latin mass whose words I did not really understand. Still, I wore my mini-cassock with as much reverence as I could muster, and, when time came for me to ring the bell, I did so as though God Himself were listening.
Last week, I got to wear a different sort of uniform, one I pressed for the occasion. At my old school, faculty only wore caps and gowns in the first few years after the school reopened. For some reason, the practice stopped. But, at the new school, this year’s graduation featured all the pomp and circumstance the occasion demanded. I got to wear the colors of my graduate school and highest academic degree draped on the back of my robe. My colleagues and I looked quite the intellectuals as we marched into the church. I felt a sense of gravitas and purpose as we preceded the graduates to our seats near the altars at first the Baccalaureate Mass and then the graduation ceremony itself the following day.
But neither day belonged to us, and we knew it. All the light and flutter fell on the young men and women occupying the front pews. As they lined up before the procession, I shook hands and whispered greetings to as many as I could. They all looked so much older in their caps and gowns, so much more rooted and sure of their steps and bearing. It occurred to me that, while I will always miss them, they had outgrown the confines of my classroom–as it should be. The ceremony is called “Commencement” for a reason, and every face had that glow you get on a family road trip when all the bags are finally loaded, and the seats are full, and the only thing left to do is pull away and go.
The school choir never sounded better, the principal never more eloquent. When the Cardinal spoke during the Mass, I could envision him sitting with his colleagues in a conclave summoned to name a new pope. At graduation itself, the Shrine filled with family and friends of the honorees. I grabbed three programs for my scrapbook and studied the order listed on the program.
Everything seemed different. Senior Class Officers, and not the administration, presided over the affair. A “Call to Order” preceded the Invocation. Then a “Welcome” led to a “Recognition of Platform Guests.” After more greetings and a choir selection, I noticed a listing marked “Senior Class Presentation.” I knew how hard the two faculty Class Sponsors had worked over four years, and I rightly guessed their efforts would again be acknowledged, as they should be.
But then something happened I didn’t expect. I heard the names of three of my colleagues being summoned to the front of the altar. I knew each to be a dedicated champion of students, particularly the Class of 2013, and I smiled at their special moment. Then, the teacher sitting next to me nudged me with her elbow. I turned to see what she wanted when I realized what I was hearing over the microphone was my name being called. I rose from my seat and stood facing the graduates beside my other honored colleagues.
It was the first time I had seen all their faces seated in pews on both sides of the center aisle. My altar perch had not provided the bird’s eye view I would have preferred. But there I stood, and there they all were. The look of utter surprise must have claimed my face. I saw one student with whom I shared a particular bond laughing at what must have been a silly look. But I couldn’t help myself. It was either stare straight ahead or cry.
When my turn came, a young lady whose voice I knew well read the words on a plague intended for me. As she read, I lifted my left finger and wiped an itch from my eye. I knew the graduates were watching, and I exaggerated the gesture. A slight murmur in the crowd signaled laughter, and then the young lady finished reading. I could only catch a few of the words as I surveyed the magnificent miracles facing me.
She said something about “success” and “understanding.” I heard the line, “the teacher we could relate to the most,” and then the verb “inspired.” I couldn’t believe they had done that–and no one told me. For one of the few times in my recent life, I was actually surprised–and it showed.
“We love you,” one young lady who I taught all year yelled from her seat. I think I heard applause. I do know I said, “I love you too” in an audible voice, and I meant it. As I touched my left fist to my heart and spread my right arm wide to embrace them all, I paused for one last look before returning to my seat. I bowed my head in thanksgiving and didn’t come back down to the ground until it was time to present the diplomas.
Amidst family cheers as the principal read the names of the graduates (at least, I think it was the principal; I don’t really recall), I savored each one. Later, as faculty led the procession out of the church, I heard more cheers, including some for me. I had never seen anything like it, and I still marvel at the gift I received from such incredible young people. The day was clearly their season, their time, and they had elected to include me.
I still have my two tenth grade classes to prepare for next week’s final exam. I will use these last days to tell them how much our year together has meant to me. I will remind them of how much we have learned together. I will be sure to emphasize how much I appreciate their efforts. And I will pretend I do not notice how empty the halls feel now that the seniors are gone. After all, every student matters and probably does not hear it enough.
I was recently reminded in a life-affirming way that a dab of appreciation goes a long, long way.