It's funny to talk about graduation day at the beginning of the new school year, when 2010 grads are off on the new paths of college or work, and the class of 2011 is looking down that long road of senior year and wondering just how much coffee/chocolate/music/reading it will take to get through it. But to me, it's still summer, and summer has always been a time of transition -- the warm break just after the new life of spring, just before the quiet death of autumn. The pause between one school year and the next that seems to get shorter with every passing year. The final deep breath before graduating seniors jump into the exciting, terrifying abyss of something new.
Graduation day. What's not to love?
Well, for starters, the girls had to wear a see-through white gown instead of the much cooler maroon that the guys sported. My hair, after a tragic frizz-inducing incident with an entire bottle of blonde highlighting conditioner, wasn't cooperating and had to go into a messy ponytail. I wasn't on the best of terms with my parents (as evidenced by the awkward family photo -- does Mom look like she wants to kill someone or what?). I didn't have a lot of friends in my school, so no post-grad bashes filled my calendar. And the worst part? I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do with my life after this. The only thing that tempered my otherwise complete terror was my excitement about leaving home at the end of summer, heading off to college. I didn't know what I'd study, what path I'd take to the future... it was enough that I was finally gaining my freedom, away from the dull homogeneity of high school and the oppressive rules of my parents.
Speaking of dull homogeneity...
Our 320-student graduating class was notorious for its lack of school spirit. While previous senior classes held fundraisers to go on Caribbean cruises for their senior trips, ours raised only enough for a 400-mile bus ride to a long weekend in New York City. Most of our sports teams were mediocre at best, and our teachers constantly outshone us in pep-itude at the pep rallies. And our yearbooks, those timeless keepsakes inside which we were supposed to spend the last month of school trading signatures and inside jokes, were delayed by the printer, promised to be sent to us sometime the next fall, long after many of us would've forgotten about them. Whatever.
Class prank? Our class?
Ennui. Apathy. That kind of collectively summed us up, as far as school stuff went. So I knew our class prank -- if we even did one -- would be mild by comparison. Nothing elaborate. Nothing daring and dangerous, hilarious and clever, or mildly illegal. Nothing for the annals. Maybe even nothing at all.
But suddenly, graduation day arrived, and there was something, after all.
I don't know who came up with it. I don't know how it was decided and organized, or how they got us all -- jocks, nerds, goths, heads, stoners, band geeks, drama queens, wannabe gangstas, preps, sluts, prudes, skaters, and everyone in between -- to agree to it (maybe because it would take too much of that missing spirit to say no). I wasn't on the inside track to such grand plans (possibly because of the socially ostracizing orange hair incident). I was just happy that someone passed me a coveted, much-whispered about ping-pong ball just before the ceremony. We all got one. All 320 of us.
And then it was on.
As each of us crossed the stage and reached out to shake the hand of our principal and receive our long-awaited diploma, we handed him a ping-pong ball.
At first, the principal kind of chuckled and thanked students in an "aw, shucks" kind of way, as if he was let in on some special rite of passage or inside joke. One ball went into his suit coat pocket. Then another. And another. But soon he had nowhere to put the excess balls, trying awkwardly to hold them in one hand while handing out diplomas, his smile never wavering as one ball then another slipped from his control.
That's a lot of balls.
I mean, think about it. 320? Even 20 balls is a lot when you're standing up on a stage in an echo-chamber assembly hall in front of two thousand parents and grandparents and onlookers, little white balls escaping and bouncing all over the shiny wood floors and down into the crowd, escalating in frequency as each of us crossed that stage. Pop. Pop. Pop-pop-pop.
After an hour, the pops slowed and faded. Then, with little fanfare, it was over -- four years smooshed into what felt like the final four minutes. As the stage crew ran desperately after the felled balls, we threw our caps in the air with a muffled woo-hoo, poured outside for family photos in the bright sun, piled into our respective family cars, and waved goodbye. To each other. To high school. To ping-pong balls. To another chapter, another path, clearing the way for the next.
Who's laughing now?
When I got home, I opened up my diploma folio, wondering if I'd hang it on the wall one day like I'd seen doctors and lawyers do. That's when I learned that the final prank was on us. The diploma that we'd all worked so hard for turned out to be an empty pleather folio with a form inside, telling us how to mail away for our real diploma a few months later. Yep, just like our yearbooks, those diplomas were still being printed. It was as if the entire administration wanted to stretch our senior year a little longer, to protect us from the real world just a few more weeks. Or perhaps they feared we'd pull a nastier prank, worthy of withholding those coveted degrees. More than likely it was just bad planning, laziness, procrastination -- par for the course with our "unspirited" bunch.
The school administrators may have pulled the last gag, planned or not. But you know something? Despite it's lack of bite, those ping-pong balls were pretty freakin' hilarious. Not as hilarious as my orange hair, but still...
So now I want to know... upcoming grads and younger high school students, what are you most excited about for graduation? Recent grads, how do you feel now that high school is behind you? And for those of us with *cough* more than a few years behind us since we last walked the scuffed halls of high school, what do you remember most about your own graduation?