It's that time of year. What's the old song? "I can still remember . . ." And I do. It's what I talk about when I'm invited to be a graduation speaker and what I write about every year at this time.
It's about all those painful memories.
For many people, graduation is a day full of joy, a day about pride and accomplishment, about family and friends, a day of celebration. I hope it will always be that kind of day for my children — and, yes, for me in celebrating them.
But that's not how it was for me when I was the graduate.
In high school, I missed out on being valedictorian by a tenth of a point (and if they'd considered my last semester grades . . .). OK, not a biggie. When people asked where I was headed to college, I had to say that, actually, I'd been rejected by my first through fifth choices and was headed for number six. OK, Wellesley certainly did well by me, and hopefully, I've done well by them. My parents' marriage was falling apart.
By the time I graduated from college, it had fallen apart. I was raped 36 hours before. My father didn't come because his wife of six months — who didn't like me one bit — was angry that I didn't have a ticket for her. My mother came with her then-boyfriend. I was too much of a mess for a dinner out, so we had bagels afterward at my sister's. Then I went "home" to the apartment — the one where I'd been raped in the parking lot.
And when it came time to attend my law school graduation, I didn't go. Having no money at all, I'd already started work a few weeks before at a firm in D.C. My father was dead. I didn't have money for the airfare back. My mother said it was just as well.
So when I think about graduation days, I think about all of the sadness of people who are missing, who aren't there to come or don't come, of graduating and not going where you wanted to go, of looking out on a sea of what looks like people who are so much happier than you are.
And here is what I've learned in the years since. Life is not about learning to deal with success. That's easy. It's about learning to move past disappointments and failures, to move on, to make the best. I won't say everything works out for the best. It doesn't, not always. Sometimes what is, is.
There's an old study I always invoke in talking to disappointed seniors. It was a study of a class of Harvard graduates from decades ago that found that the happiest were not the ones who were dealt the best hands, but those who played their hands — whatever the cards — well. There are things you just can't change, and you confront them on big days like graduation. And there are things you can change, and you will. And then there is the serenity to know the difference.
A few years ago, a friend asked me — in a situation not entirely unlike the one my father faced so many years ago — whether he should go to graduation even though his wife had not been included. My advice: Walk over coals or broken glass. You never know what the future will hold. He went.
Some good comes from everything. It does. Sometimes it just takes a while.
Congratulations, graduates. Congratulations, parents. God bless.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.
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