Kiss for luck

My daughter's eighth-grade graduation is a ritual like none I've ever experienced.

By Sallie Tisdale

Published June 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I'm into eighth-grade graduation for more than $200 already, praying the end is in sight and that I don't start crying until she actually walks across the stage. Will she walk across the stage? I don't know. I don't know much of anything, except that this is one of our few rituals, and I'm sadly lacking in experience.

I graduated from eighth grade in 1971, on a warm, clear day, in a white cotton dress with blue flowers on it that I'd sewed myself,
rather badly. The sun shone through and outlined my legs. We stood on rickety bleachers in a hot gymnasium, and sang the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun." ("White lace and proooommmisses, a kiss for luck and we're oooonnnnn our wwwaaayyy ...") Did I walk across the stage? I don't know; by then, I was already looking beyond, to high school.

I didn't graduate from high school. I quit after two years, leaving both it and home, no one very sorry to see me go. I went to college instead, an outwardly sour, inwardly yearning 16-year-old, with no idea what was in store but racing ahead as fast as I could.

I didn't graduate from college for 10 years -- life had intervened that decade -- and then it was from the third school I attended. I wore a black robe and was one of about a thousand graduates. My 4-year-old son sat in the audience, bored stiff, and my mother, secretly sure I'd been on the road to ruin since kindergarten, took my photograph with obvious relief.

That son didn't graduate from eighth grade or high school. In fact, he got kicked out of two preschools and Head Start before entering school in the first place; later he was kicked out of fifth grade, spent several years at what we might euphemistically call a "special" program for troubled young people, and then spent two productively delinquent years in high school before dropping out. He quickly earned his GED, but it doesn't usually come with an official ceremony.

I did go to one high school graduation, when my adopted son, who is older, but younger, if you catch my drift, finished his senior year. He is deaf and learning-disabled and spent his high school years at a boarding school for the deaf about 40 miles away, coming home on the weekends,
when he slept until mid-afternoon. He graduated from high school at 19. He wore a brilliant purple robe and cried most of the evening; I cried, too, when another boy earnestly sang/signed R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," with all the heart I'd put into the Carpenters' anthem. He received what is called a "modified" diploma to go with all the report cards full of comments like "A for effort" and "could pay more attention." After graduation, he stayed at the school for another two years, learning "independent living skills." Disabled children are guaranteed public school up to the age of 21. He managed to get kicked out three weeks before his birthday.

Do you see why I have little experience at this particular thing?

Today, another graduation. My daughter is a year older and a head shorter than her classmates, because her own medically challenged infancy and childhood left her behind her peers. Graduation, what to wear? A note came home from school: "Formal wear and limousines are not appropriate." Neither option had occurred to me. My daughter's gorgeous figure is usually hidden behind big T-shirts, and she hasn't worn a dress outside theatrical performances within memory. What to wear? I didn't know, she didn't know, but I assumed it wouldn't be a problem because it had never been a problem before.

I am a clueless adult, a fashion victim, old. (Watching a couple kiss in a movie last week, my daughter said, "You used to do that, didn't you?") I'm past prime, that's for sure, and I don't know beans about graduation, which is not the point, but only the prelude. "You're not coming!" she said in shock, when I mentioned that I'd be dressing up a little myself. It turned out she meant to the party and dance that follows the ceremony. I can go to graduation, but no further.

The United States is famously devoid of common ritual. Weddings,
funerals, the Super Bowl -- what else is there? We're not very good at coming forcefully together to acknowledge human passages. Graduation is just about all we have to mark growing up. We don't welcome babies together, celebrate menstruation or mark the opening of adolescence. Outside of a few religious ceremonies, we don't do
much to acknowledge the central experience of children -- growing up. I've come to love these few chances for public sentiment outside the movies and sporting events. They are a kind of communal hope, and I long for more. I can still sing, "We've only just begun to liiiivvve!" and get choked up every time, the way I choked up over Scott, kneeling on the deaf school stage, glasses reflecting the spotlight, gesturing gracefully: "I believe I can fly! I believe I can touch the sky..." A cheap shot, maybe, but it worked.

I remember vaguely noting when my high school class was graduating. By then, I'd been two years in college, traveled to Europe, and was
working and living on my own. High school, and the people I'd known there, seemed very young and very far away. I was very young still, too young to know how young I was. With time my class's graduation did come to matter a little bit, after all, because there were so few other markers in my life and I'd left with such momentum and so few farewells. The school eventually gave me a diploma and a yearbook, which relieved my father to no end. By my own choice I'd stepped outside that world and neither seemed to belong to me. I missed the prom, too.

For weeks we've been shopping. You have to understand, this girl doesn't go shopping. This girl doesn't care what she wears, as long as you can kick a soccer ball in it. This girl doesn't care what her hair looks like, as long as it's not in the way of the basketball. (She may be a head shorter, but she's got a heck of a hook shot.) I thought this would be an easy errand: Grab a pair of slacks, a new shirt, some shoes. Maybe give a dress a second look. Go home.

We've gone to the mall, let's see now, a half-dozen times. It has been not quite tearful, only difficult. We've spent hours in stores laden with the teeniest skirts and blouses and form-fitting dresses designed for "Baywatch" girl guards, helped by young women who get a look at my daughter's luscious curves and startling height and can't decide which graduation she's attending. She's tried on an awful long stream of suggested items, most of which I ferry to her one at a time, catching glimpses of my own, let's be honest, matronly figure in faded jeans and wrinkled shirt, reflected in what must be funhouse mirrors. Going to these stores and watching these creamy beauties pose in front of the three-way mirrors is like being teleported to a planet of the tiny and thin and breathtakingly young.

My shy daughter watches everyone and herself carefully, without comment. So far, we've bought slacks, a blouse, a blazer, shoes,
socks, skirt, another blouse, necklace, earrings, stockings ... Suddenly she's one of the creamy ones, self-conscious, devastating. Suddenly it matters, it matters big time, this ceremony, this initiation, ritual, symbol, watershed, change. This is going onstage. This is being top dog of the school for a single night. This is the start of summer; this is her last chance to get up the courage to dance with the boy she has stared at all year. All these years, she's grown up slowly, carefully, with savor. I raced ahead, missing details, but she dawdles.

"This is the last thing I do before I go to high school," she says in the car on the way home from the mall. Her voice drops to a whisper: "Which I have to do, even if I don't want to."

Tonight's the ceremony, but it is all ritual to me now -- the confusion and insecurity, the dressing rooms, the difficult credit-card returns. The look on her father's face when he sees her dressed up in the short black skirt and tight, surprisingly low-cut red blouse she has decided to wear. I'm sure the actual graduation will be full of whispers and snorts of derision and giggles and perspiring, teary parents. After that, we'll say goodbye and get out of the way of the party and dance, drying tears, feeling the years and the losses, the goodbyes to come.

But first: What are we going to do with her hair?

Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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