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Graduation Night....

GRADUATION NIGHT:
Bittersweet Reflections On The Untimely End of Innocence...

By Earl Merkel

Throughout the week, the stories had been in the newspaper: lists of graduating seniors, final high school honors, stories of valedictorians and speakers, all destined for an ultimate fate as clippings in seldom-to-be-opened scrapbooks.

He had read the stories. They had all been happy, optimistic, sounding just as such items always do: This is the beginning, you are embarked on a great adventure!

Nowhere could he find an explanation for the vague disquiet the stories caused him. It was just there, lumps under the wallpaper of an old house. All he knew was that somehow, the catch-phrases rang hollow-- too hearty, like the pitch of a telephone solicitor. It was as if some alarm had been triggered, a warning that should be passed on to the smiling graduates as they walked out the high school doors forever.

The gloom, he decided, must have had its roots in the past: perhaps in another graduation night, now decades ago...

• • •

It is a cool night outside, but in the crowded hallway that flanks the high school gym the temperature is causing sweat to stain the shirts and dresses beneath the graduation robes.

We are all laughing-- too loud, too rowdy for school. But no teacher comes to silence us, no administrator glares us into submission. It is as if they, and we, are suddenly possessed of a wildly liberating fact: we are no longer students here!

That realization seems to have struck each of us at the same instant, a pulsing current that energizes us en masse. As a group, we are each responding to it, true to our own natures.

The guys are punching each other on the arms or chest in the way that high school friends express affection, male to male. The girls are laughing, straightening the mortarboard hats of friends they have known since the first grade. "Steadies" are holding hands that are weighted down with class rings wrapped in wool to fit girlish fingers. "Jocks" are leaning against the school trophy case, cracking crude jokes and trading scatological insults about mistakes made in games that ended years before.

Somebody has smuggled in a transistor radio. It has been providing mainly static, mixed with soft snatches of music: California surfing songs, mostly --the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, or the myriad of one-hit-wonders who imitate them. It is an incongruously popular sound for children of the landlocked Midwest, but one which has been the background soundtrack for our proms, sock hops and moonlight gatherings in fields or empty parking lots over the past four years.

There is a sudden shout over the din -- "Listen to this! We're on the radio!" -- and the chaos moderates just enough to hear.

"And to the graduates of" --the disk jockey names our school-- "congratulations and good luck. Remember, kids... rock o-o-on!"

It is a minor enough tribute, but on this night it is as if we had been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Pandemonium breaks out. Linda, the effervescent one, the co-captain of the varsity cheerleading squad, raises her voice to give it form and substance. "School song! School song!" she yells, and starts to sing the hackneyed embarrassment that had always been guaranteed to elicit catcalls (or worse) during school assemblies.

But not this time.

As Linda's voice rings out, something curious happens. It affects those closest to her first: the clamor of several hundred frenzied teenagers fades away, the hush rippling outward as if a stone had been thrown into water. Finally, there is a moment of complete silence from the rest of us, and for an instant Linda's voice is the only one heard. Then, from somewhere down the crowded hallway, another joins in. And then another.

And suddenly we are all singing it, jocks and brains and geeks and hippies; even the small and private knot that invariably formed around Larry, our resident detention-hall thug, has joined in. We are all singing now, shouting out a tuneless melody that at this moment is more moving than any other music could possibly be.

And we are marching, all four hundred of us. It is a spontaneous victory lap around the hallways that we first slinked along fearfully as freshmen and later, as upperclassmen, strode with the arrogance of ownership. In the tumult, we look around at faces that we have watched change over the past four years-- shape-shifting in ways our own must have done while we were looking elsewhere.

There is squeaky-clean Marc, tall and bespeckled and the "brain" of the school. Somehow, in a way that belies our own social-status pyramid, he is wildly popular and has been our class president three of his four years here. A few years hence, he will drop out from Northwestern University; a year after that, he will be immortalized locally as the "dirty one with the beard" standing behind Jane Fonda at an antiwar rally. His name will not be printed in the caption. Still, most of us will recognize him. We will stare at the photo in numb shock, using Marc as a yardstick against the distances we too we will have traveled since this night.

And there is Tommy, class athlete and letterman in four sports; he too is singing and marching with us. For the first time since any of us have known him, the "superjock cool" is gone, lost in the elation of graduation excitement. Before the summer is out, Tommy will be married and working at the Ford assembly plant across the river.

And there is Jim, who will go on to an engineering degree and a nervous ulcer in college; and Rusty, who will give up a dream of becoming an architect and return to teach in this very school; and Tony, who will return from Vietnam in a uniform and a box. And there are others, whose names we will at some point lose the ability to recall, but whose faces this night we will never forget.

We sing and remember football games, drama club presentations, lunchroom food fights, and more-- the trivial but all-important events that have defined for us our high school years. We know, particularly on this night, that we will never, never forget these moments.

And we know, with the absolute certainty of youth, that we will always have what we have now: these friends who jostle alongside us at this wonderful, terrible moment of emancipation. We know this beyond doubt-- for have they not always been there, with us?

All too soon, we are finally herded into the brightly lighted gymnasium where our families await. We file in, flushed with our exertions and our emotions-- and perhaps with something else besides; but mercifully, we have no name for it, not yet, and so we deem it of little importance.

Later, after we have received the leatherette folders with our diplomas and have drifted away from the cameras and handshakes of our families, we are at one of the half-dozen graduation parties --planned or impromptu-- that are being thrown around town. We have put off our summer farewells to classmates, thinking we will see them at the parties-- all of which we plan to attend...

• • •

Somehow, it doesn't work out that way. After drifting to one or two of the parties, you forget previous intentions and settle back where you are.

It is only later, much later, when you are driving home alone in the almost-new 1968 Chevy that a parent has allowed you this night, that you begin to listen to the car radio through a slightly self-satisfied haze.

The Happenings, a Beach Boys' sound-alike, are singing. "Will I see you... in September..."

For the first time, you realize that you won't.

-- 30 --

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Graduation

Bittersweet indeed. You surely captured that big event in most of our lives. One of the things I remember about our 1951 commencement was standing on the stairs with my "gang" while our pix was taken--and we wondered if that would be the last time we were all together. It was. I never saw the photo. But it is indelible in my brain, nevertheless.