Three things marked the occasion of the very first of our offspring to finish high school: the tensions within the family climbed -- and climbed -- and climbed.
The first sign of trouble started about six months before she was to become a white-gowned graduate and march to be beat of "Pomp and Circumstance," or whatever it eventually would be, when I decided that the anthropologist in me wanted to ritualize the occasion.
So at snowy Christmas I began inviting faraway favorite aunts and uncles to come east to Washington's humid June. Commencement fever in December struck the nonanthropological parent as wildly premature. His thinking was that a more appropriate time for a super celebration would be after the high school graduate successfully had completed her first year of college and the celebration might be a dual one for the parents who had successfully completed their first year of college payments.
I agreed that this was hardly the Journey's End -- just a first stop on the way -- but I wanted the family to place the event in the center of our particular historical experience, to interpret the experience in our own way.
Still, as the event drew nearer, I breathed a surprising sigh of relief that the list of out-of-town relatives pared itself down to a manageable size: one person.
That's because the subject of the attention alternately was entering dark nights of the soul and seeing blue skies as she waited and hoped to hear about college.
By the time the letter arrived telling her that the Ivy League University she wanted, wanted her, her nails were nubs.
My own high school graduation from Lincoln Institute in tiny Lincoln Ridge, Ky. had not prepared me for the formality of high school graduation, D.C.-style. Whether the graduate pulls on the shiny purple robes of Cardozo Senior High in the city, the white robes of W.T. Woodson in Fairfax, or the long white dresses of Visitation Academy in Montgomery County, whether the dreams are of the Ivy League, Howard, a small college in Georgia, or a good job after graduation, commencement-season fever rages out of control -- trips to the Caribbean, expensive prom dresses, all-night parties.
High school commencement is a time edged with danger; as our children head for fun and sun the parents wonder if they're being over-protective when they worry. We were forewarned, but not prepared.
When graduation still was month away, signs that this was the final year of high school started appearing: increased independence and personal responsibility, decisions to make and things to do, obligations for tests, leadership in school activites, and setting examples for envious juniors.
And as the graduate's tensions rise, families of the first offspring to finish high school hear the edginess creeping into their own voices. The already too hectic pace of all our lives is quickened by this awareness. The parents know that when the children are free they are free, but the event that is a milestone for the graduate is also one for parents -- pain and pride intermingle at the imminent departure of the firstborn.
In my years as a reporter I'd seen mothers whose graduating senior was the very first of the family to finish high school. I'd seen the pride so palpable it seemed their hearts would explode.
What I was to learn when the graduate walked onto the stage in a long white dress, holding a multicolored bouquet that shook with her nervousness, was that a parent's pride is huge -- no matter what the circumstances.
One by one, each girl walked onto the stage and heard her high school career capsulized. She marched off again, exuberant, eyes dewey, anxious to match wits and skills with the galaxy, or at least with young people like herself.
These were children shaped by the 1970s, graduating into the '80s. They were fortunate children: every member of the class was headed for college. Each listened carefully to the speech that avoided the predictable phrases, while reminding the graduates that they could -- no, that they must -- make a difference.
After it was over, the head of the school reminded the parent not to pay any attention to the old myths about success in high school. It doesn't matter if one is not at the head of the class, he said, because he believed in the late bloomer, the person who comes into his own when he gets his first chance to be his own person, not the family's nor his teacher's idea of what he should be.
Then it was time for our graduate's family to mark the rite -- to gather together those people who had helped shape her experience outside of school. The favorite aunt, who told the stories about her life and experiences, who reminded her to come to know herself. The first nursery school teacher, who reminded her that she is heiress to a tradition of perseverance and resistance that will make her free.
And finally, with a reminder that a high school diploma is just a ticket to starting life, just a ticket to going on with education, what had started months before with tension ended with a toast and the graduate's sprint for the door.