I was exhausted from working my two jobs over the weekend and was not looking forward to the graduation ceremony. I have been to many graduations and I know how boring they are for most people. To top everything off, my wife and I had our two kids under the age of three with us. Both of the kids were squirming and whining, and I knew it was going to be a long afternoon. Our sole comic relief came when my three-year-old patted and rubbed the head of a bald man we did not know in front of us. As the ceremony dragged on I kept thinking of all the places I would rather be, and made up my mind that I wasn't going to enjoy myself.
It was your ordinary graduation ceremony: a hot, sweaty auditorium filled with people fanning themselves with their programs, listening to speech upon boring speech, and the endless calling of names as each matriculator walked across the stage to grab this piece of paper that symbolized his or her academic accomplishment. It was getting harder and harder to pay attention. Just as my attitude started to go sour, they began calling out the graduate's names. The classmates formed a single file line and made their way up towards the podium.
That's when I caught my first close-up glimpse of Kim. She looked up at us and was trying in vain to hold back the tears. She was not doing a good job of it. Believe me, holding back emotions is not something that Kim does very well. There she was, standing in line, about to receive her diploma, and she was probably thinking about a number of things. Maybe her dad who passed away a few years ago and didn't get to see her reach her goal, or her grandmother, who also passed away recently, and who had always wanted to attend college, but her family didn't have the money... For me it was like something from a movie. You know, the dramatic slow motion scene where all the crowd noise grows quiet, and the camera slowly moves up on her face as the tears begin to fall. She was a good distance away from us, but to me it was as if she were standing in front of me. That simple act of looking up at those loved ones who had come to watch her graduate, and gently rubbing the tears of joy, accomplishment, and pride out of her eyes really got through to me. The selfishness in me melted away, and I realized why I was there and not somewhere else.
"KIMBERLY ANNE CONWAY, GRADUATING MAGNA CUM LAUDE," came booming over the auditorium's sound system, and she walked gracefully across the huge stage and received this piece of paper that symbolized so many things to her. Then just before she walked off the stage, she turned around towards those who had come to share the day with her, and, with the brightest smile on her face, waved and grinned at us like a little girl getting on the school bus for the first time.
I glanced at my wife, and saw the tear-drops roll gently down as the love she had for her sister manifested itself on her face.
You see, Kim is not your ordinary college graduate. She is thirty- eight years old, and has stuck with her goal of graduating from college for the past twenty years. It's not like she is going to look back on that part of her life, sigh, and say, "College... the best twenty years of my life!"
She attended college while working full time, and she studied extremely hard, especially the past couple of years as she pushed toward her goal of a college degree. Many times she felt like quitting, and, if it weren't for her support group of other nontraditional students that cared for her, she would have given up on her goal. Many times she would call one of the other students she knew and tell them she wanted to quit, and would be talked out of it. Then a while later this student would call her and say she wanted to quit and Kim would talk her out of it... (Luckily, they both didn't want to quit at the same time!)
I have the utmost respect for Kim. It takes a special person to stick with a goal as long as she has. I attended college for three years when I got out of high school, but I stopped when I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. Many times I have looked back and wished that I had stuck with it and gone on to be a high school teacher. If for no other reason, I wish I had finished something that I had started.
I know what it feels like to walk out of that last final exam of the semester, breathe in the fresh air just outside the doors of the university, and feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off your shoulders for at least a little while. I can't even begin to imagine what it felt like for Kim after so many years...
I love you, Kim, and I want you to know that I admire you for that symbolic piece of paper that will soon adorn a wall in your house.
In the words of Caleb, my three-year-old: "HAPPY GRADULATION, AUNT KIMMY!"