Be Gentle With Your Graduates

photo by pixiesticks23@flickr.com

When I graduated from Hobart & William Smith Colleges in 1989, Professor Lee Quinby made a poignant speech and reminded audience members that another word for graduation is commencement and that commencement means “to enter upon” or “to begin.” She described commencement as a hopeful word, and it is. But she also went on to remind us that whenever there is a beginning, there is also an ending.

I have held onto these words for all these years because they have felt true to me. For example, I understand that when a man marries – while he adores his bride – he may simultaneously long for his bachelor days: the time he used to spend with his friends, unfettered by the responsibilities that come along with being a husband. When a woman gives birth to a child, she is no longer alone; she now must care for the needs of another person. And while she may revel in her child’s newness, she may simultaneously grieve the loss of her independence. When a child moves from one grade to the next, he may be excited about moving to another level of education, but he may be nervous about new expectations. Children may secretly mourn friends they know they will not likely see again; they may become silent and withdrawn or explosive and nervous.

Professor Lee Quinby presenting, recent

Professor Quinby suggested that we consider allowing ourselves to grieve a little bit as commencement can be a scary time, an uncertain place, that middle place where one doesn’t know where one is going yet. We only know where we have been.

My advice to parents during this time of year is an echo of a lesson taught to me by Professor Quinby over 20 years ago: Be gentle with your graduates, whatever their age or grade. Some of them may be feeling a little disconnected – particularly if they will be starting at a new school, separating from old friends, starting a new job, or moving away from everything they have ever known. And while you may not be able to tell it from looking at them, on the inside, they may feel a little bit like lopsided, three-legged tables. Okay . . .  just a little unstable.

George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” So don’t worry if you see your graduates begin to reinvent themselves a little bit over the summer: The rule-following boy who was so kind throughout elementary school, may become a little meaner as he enters middle school; the introverted girl who has always done everything her parents asked may suddenly seriously consider getting her belly button pierced, despite their protests. It’s okay, they are morphing, becoming, and this starting over can make all the difference in the world.

At one time or another, we all want to be someone else. The smart kid. The pretty girl. The cheerleader. The athlete. The guy with the cool car. It’s what children want – and what we grow out of, if we are lucky.

So let them change. Let the star football player put down his shoulder pads and try out for a play, if he wants to. Let the ballerina trade toe-shoes for track shoes; let the drummer try a little yoga. Feed their dreams. Help them discover all the various, untapped parts of themselves. Support them, but don’t rescue them from their jitters as new strengths will come from the discomforts of the middle place. Transition takes time. Give them time.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t baby them. And don’t buy them crap for graduating from kindergarten (“We’re so proud you can finger-paint!”) or elementary school. (Gag.) Instead, give the age-appropriate responsibilities as rewards for their new stage in life.

And trust me when I say that your graduates are going to be fine. Lee Quinby told me so a long time ago and, in my experience, she was right.

What do you remember feeling about graduation?

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16 responses to “Be Gentle With Your Graduates

  1. Thank you, Renee–perfect timing for me!

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  2. Nice article Renee! With two out of the house now, I must admit, both have totally reinvented themselves, neither better nor worse, just different. They see things in a new perspective! We should welcome the change, and encourage them to be independent, and find themselves (instead of waiting till their forty, like I did, lol)!

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  3. Renee,
    It was thoroughly enjoyable to read your blog entry just now, thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories and wisdoms acquired along the way.

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  4. blake schifferstein

    After high school, I was so excited to begin my college life. I felt that I was finally on “my own” and in control. After college, I was so nervous to begin my real life. I felt I was finally on “my own” and way out of control. It was so scary to leave a routine, a paycheck, a city-all so familiar. Those steps from college life to “real life” were heavy for me. I finally grew up the day I was handed that diploma.

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  5. Amy Bernstein

    I like this post a lot, especially since I feel I can relate, not just about graudation, but about life changes in general. Every time there is a new chapter in life, there is inevitably an ending to something else. I know some people embrace change like it’s their favorite sweater, but I am not one of those people.

    I always find myself grieving for the past and scared for the future. It helps when I hear the wise words of others on making it through these changes.

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  6. Amy Bernstein

    And by the way, I fully realized right after I pressed submit that I had a spelling error. It wouldn’t let me go back to change. However, being that you are “Mrs. Jacobson” who says things like “A little proofreading goes a long way” I thought I should at least tell you that I did indeed see it…just to late…sigh.

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  7. I remember – as a high school graduate – being scared and excited about the next stage of my life. It was an awakening period for me. My own independence was on the line. I had to be brave. I had to trust my instincts. I had to overcome my fears. And most important, I had to be successful at college. I look back now and I have had pleasure, laughter, satisfaction, self discovery. I learned how how to accept criticism (most of the time) and have zestful ventures. I have found something strange, new and unfamiliar, and I continue to search for new things to see and do. I am not afraid to make a mistake and I no longer struggle for acceptance. I like myself and others. I hope I have made more mature judgments. So graduates it’s okay to be scared and have emotions. Accept who you are and be glad to be alive.

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  8. What a great way to use the prompt to remind us to keep expectations in check. In such a fast paced world, we are so likely to push and push for instant success. Many of these graduates are still young and it is a big world out there.

    Also, I loved the quote from your teacher about never being too late to start anything. I just turned 40 and I’m finally taking my writing career seriously. So, I am living proof of this.🙂

    Great post! Visiting from TDRC…

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  9. Oh I’m teary! And yes, change is just plain hard. I *will* be gentle with my little graduates. Thanks for the (much needed) reminder!

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    • I know. My little Monkey is now finishing up his first year of middle school, and I wonder: “How did that happen?” He has changed so much from year to year. It’s like he reinvents himself each summer. Be gentle with yourself, too. Change is uber-hard, but in that good hard way.😉

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  10. I really enjoyed this post.
    I loved how you expanded upon beginnings and endings… it helped give me a real perspective.
    I remember having those feelings as I graduated high school. I had received a full scholarship to a prestigious University and while I was thrilled about no more stupid high school with its immaturity and bullies, I was terrified about having to keep my grades over a certain line….

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  11. Loved the perspective of the simultaneous beginning and ending. Thought the idea of the milestone promotions being rewarded with age appropriate responsibilities was great. And found this line….”Support them, but don’t rescue them from their jitters as new strengths will come from the discomforts of the middle place.” …particularly brilliant.

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    • Thank you, May. I remember having that feeling – of being in a middle place. At a threshold. So while everyone was doing the “Congratulations!” thing, the experience was simultaneously wonderful and overwhelmingly terrifying. I think I climbed through a window to get trough the other side.😉

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