Today as part of graduation events, the seniors promenade in their caps and gowns, receive tassels and ribbons, and are honored by Ipswich High School for their artistic, athletic, academic and extracurricular achievements over the past four years.
Some students, like my daughter Sarah, have maintained admirable grades and taken tough classes. Yet they won’t be among the percentage that receive individual accolades. Sarah — like many of her peers — has walked too close to dangerous edges, taken huge risks, strayed far from traditional paths, endured unspeakable traumas, and then returned again. There aren’t any awards, at least in our school, for that kind of triumph.
Yet all around me, I see courage. In my daughter Sarah. And other children, collected into the seats in the performing arts center, though they’re too busy cheering, hooting, whispering and being teens to seem like anything more than everyday soon-to-be adults.
I clap for kids who have earned awards. A small number will be acclaimed due to exceptional performance, commitment to a specific cause and community service, or outstanding effort in certain subject areas.
Yet on this day, so many of our children have triumphed, simply by showing up, finishing their public school career, earning a diploma and taking the next step into the future. Many kids face challenges that are invisible to the general populace.
Issues may be private, hidden situations — or known problems that cannot be easily resolved. Either way, such difficulties have thrown major obstacles in the path of simple survival. Interfered with a process toward wellbeing or success. Financial setbacks inside a family. Poverty. Lack of food, nutrition or medical care. Homelessness or insecurity around shelter; changing residences often. Absence of a safe place to sleep or study. Limited access to resources such as internet, computers, quiet space and time to study. Illnesses or learning differences that go undiagnosed or untreated, from ADD/ADHD and autism to chronic physical conditions. Mental health issues, such as depression, cutting or eating disorders. Gender identity questions. Addictions around alcohol, drugs or food. Family instability. Prison or legal problems. Divorce. Death. Trauma. Other absences or problems with parents or guardians. Social issues such as bullying, whether physical, verbal or through digital channels. Peer issues. Victims of rape and violence, usually at home or inside dating or social relationships. Emotional damage.
Sarah will tell her own story someday. As will her friends. But those are their tales to tell, not mine.
Though every person’s path is her own, and each individual’s experiences are unique, our children aren’t alone in the darkness each has known, the edges each has teetered on or toppled over. Many — too many — face extraordinary layers of problems, hurts, wounds, injustices, lack of resources, and more.
Some kids are obviously in trouble. Their situations are diagnosed and documented. In an ideal scenario, where a child at risk or in danger can be identified, she or he is plugged into a support system that will provide advocacy, resources, safety, healing and coping mechanisms. That’s an optimal situation, but reality often falls far short of such standards, despite everyone’s best intentions.
Other times a child’s troubles are not apparent. Sometimes children who seem outwardly “okay” are scarred inside. Many students who seem to be getting by, or even high-achieving, are trying to tread water and keep their heads above a flood tide of dangerous issues. They’re in danger of drowning. For Sarah, the aspiration of going to college and becoming a nurse – a dream she will experience this fall as she attends Northeastern University — has kept her swimming, so to speak.
So today, in the baccalaureate ceremony, as hundreds of almost-grownup children earn their caps and gowns … I will know. A few names will be called; they will receive an award or pin or honor of some kind. And they will merit those recognitions. But I will applaud all of our children.
Most of these students deserve acknowledgement for their amazing accomplishment: they have survived. They have even thrived. Finished school. Claimed this moment as one stepping stone toward something more.