Graduation is a good kind of craziness

May 27, 2009 

I would like to report objectively on the Haines High class of 2009 graduation. But I can't, because my youngest daughter was one of the 21 students who eventually received diplomas and because, if you had asked me in December, I would have placed the odds of her wearing that white cap and gown at 50-50 -- and I am perpetually optimistic.

Also, while I had heard for months her practicing the piano piece she composed and performed during the ceremony, I was as surprised as everyone else was when my reluctant public speaker took the microphone before she played and said it was for us, her mom and dad, and "I love you."

I blinked back tears and I bet every mom (and a few dads) in the crowded gym did too.

But we all laughed and clapped by the time a group -- which included my daughter on the keyboards, a couple of electric guitar players, a drummer and a singer -- rocked the gym with the class anthem of sorts, Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." My visiting father, who is used to staid New England prep school commencements, folded his arms, raised his eyebrows and smiled.

He couldn't help it. This was crazy, in a good way.

On the "Talk Around Town" radio news program two days later, my friend Tom, the editor of the Chilkat Valley News, noted how much high school commencements had changed in the 20-some years he'd been attending them here. We used to invite distinguished out-of-town speakers who lectured everyone on some important topic, like seizing the day, walking to a different drummer and the importance of giving back, before waving a kind of wise fairy dust on the grads to whom we all said a collective farewell, assuming the best and brightest would leave this little town for college and only return for holidays or family funerals.

This year the valedictorian did not say goodbye, rather he thanked the community for supporting him and all the students so generously, with both time and money, and praised us for our example of excellence set for him and his classmates. The salutatorian, made a similar observation, said she will miss the two former schoolmates who died recently when their canoe capsized in Lynn Canal, and sang that tune from "Carousel," "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Instead of a guest speaker, this class chose their computer teacher. Sam McPhetres grew up a few doors down the road from our house and returned to Haines after college to live and raise his family. It's a happy choice that our two older daughters have also made. Sam gave a funny, enlightening lecture documenting the 13 years many of the seniors had spent in the Haines school, and noting that they were our first "digital natives" -- and in the first kindergarten classroom with computers. But in the end he told them the most powerful computer is their brain.

My daughter is not the only student in this class who seemed to be climbing a granite peak to reach this moment as anxious parents and helpful teachers shouted encouragement and held the belay lines. The principal praised the robed and mortar-boarded graduates seated on chairs set up in the middle of the gym, while we all sat on the bleachers, fanning ourselves with the program on this unusually warm May evening, by saying they had overcome many challenges and climbed many mountains. (Three literally had summited Kilimanjaro with a scout group, which was another first for our town.)

More than half of the graduates will attend colleges like Northern Arizona University, UAF and Gonzaga. The others say they will travel, take classes online, or attend trade schools. After the ceremony all of them followed local tradition, by lining up against the gym wall, beneath posters with their name and two blown up photos -- a baby picture, and a senior portrait -- while we all waited in long lines to hug them or shake their hands and hand them envelopes of money, cards or ribboned gifts.

We don't have a baby picture of our daughter, instead she used a cute one when she was about eight, taken in the orphanage and sent to us when we were thinking about adopting her.

Our big family and a few close friends, 14 of us in all, went ahead to get a table for dinner while she and her classmates were still being congratulated 45 minutes after the ceremony ended. When she finally arrived at the Fireweed pizza place, still in her white gown, everyone in the restaurant applauded. They all knew her name and were as proud of her as we were, I think.

Ever since Stoli arrived nine years ago from Bulgaria, our friends, neighbors, teachers, counselors, coaches, pastors and youth group leaders have said how lucky she was. They have also taught her to speak English, how to play the piano and shoot a basketball. Tonight, hearing her play that song, seeing her receive her diploma in that silly costume graduates everywhere don, and especially watching her laughing at the end of the string of tables we'd pushed together, as she reached past her brother and sisters for another slice of pizza, I knew what I've known since I met her.

We are the lucky ones.


Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines.

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