The front page of the local paper shows a picture of youthful enthusiasm sitting in folding metal chairs out on the high school football field. This is the largest graduating class in the history of HCHS.
There are about three million freckles and 12,928 shinning teeth between them. Wide open eyes hiding in the shadow of motarboard caps and tassels. Young faces. Long hair. Fuzzy hair. Pale skin. Dark skin. Full of adventure. Anxious about what might be next. Mostly, just glad to be done with Algebra and World History.
I don’t mean to speak disparagingly of a well-rounded education, but I get why these teenagers are glad to be done. I sat through hours of higher algebraic instruction. Mr. Haze told me that I was gonna need to know this stuff. He was convinced that we would need to know how to work major trigonometry and calculus equations for the rest of our lives.
He said I’d be sorry if I didn’t commit to memory the formula for calculating the velocity of a speeding train and its effect on the parabolic arch of a rubber ball being tossed by child in the passenger car, as seen from the perspective of a child standing in his front yard as the train passes by. I’ve been waiting my whole life to need that formula. By now, I’m thinking my opportunity to work for NASA might be over.
The Valedictorian, who is graduating with the highest GPA in school history, probably told them to shoot for the stars. Smart people always say stuff like “aim high”, “never give up on your dreams”, and “never forget the day we had that food fight in the cafeteria.”
Here’s what I’ve come to think. All the ribbons and awards are well deserved. The kids who worked hard have earned the right to be recognized. But I also know this. You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you can’t see what a kid will become by his GPA alone. The academics are just one factor. The heart and character of a kid is what matters most when life comes at you full steam ahead.
The future of this graduating class is not determined by the scores found in a high school transcript. The numbers on a piece of paper never tell the whole story.
See that guy sitting up in the stands. A little gray in the temples. Worried look on his face. Just below the left side of the press box. Red ball cap. Yep, that’s him.
Adam is sitting with his wife, Julia. Their son, John, is out there on the field. It’s not easy to pick him out among the sea of black robes, but they have him spotted. Third in from the left, about halfway back.
This whole day seems like a miracle to Adam. He barely made it through high school, himself. Cs and Ds mostly. It wasn’t that he hated school. It just didn’t come easy for him. He was never the popular kid. He loved sports but was never a starter. The best thing that ever happened to him was that he married his high school sweetheart.
The first few years of marriage were a little rough. “Hang in there,” his Dad would say. “You two will figure it out and make it work.” And, so far, they have.
Adam had maybe a dozen jobs in the first five years after high school. Then when John came along, he knew he had to settle into something that would give them some stability. A steady income that his family could count on.
Mr. Don Wicker hired him on as an electrician’s helper, and Adam discovered himself one afternoon pulling wire through the crawlspace of a house. The runs made sense to him. Figuring up how many leads could go on one circuit didn’t require any algebra. Amps, two-way switches, dedicated circuits, GFIs. His mind was soaking it all up like a sponge.
He asked Mr. Wicker if he could study up on being an electrician, and the old man gave him a short stack of books. He asked so many questions that the other guys started calling him “College Boy”. He was told he would have to work as an apprentice for five years before he could test to become a Journeyman Electrician.
He didn’t care. He took classes at night at the local trade school. He was the old man at 32 among a sea of young kids. But he had something they didn’t have. He had a passion to better himself. He failed his first class, but he didn’t quit. He dug in harder.
He’s 42 now, and the lead Electrician for Wicker Electric. This good fortune didn’t come easy. He’s got scrapes and one missing pinkie finger to prove it. And now he sits in the stands watching his own son begin his journey.
John hasn’t been the best student. A few Bs, but mostly . . . you guessed it . . . Cs and Ds. His Dad is well aware that the apple fell right next to the tree. It makes him worry if he’s done enough to prepare his son to make his way in this world. College doesn’t seem to be in his future, which is kind of a relief to Dad. But the road ahead is uncertain.
Years ago, when he was going to school at night, there was this portrait of Teddy Roosevelt in the hallway. He stopped and looked at it nearly every time he walked by it. There was a quote on a plaque beneath it. He read it over and over, and it got him through more than a few tough spots.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty. I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and lived them well.”
Adam was pretty sure he understood something about difficult living. And he had quoted Teddy to his son every time they worked on something together. If John lost interest, he would talk to him about his own road. Uncertain times. Hard work that paid off. About having the heart to stick with something because it matters.
Down on the field the Principle muttered off the last few closing remarks. The band played while the crowd sang the Alma Mater. “Let’s give it up for the class of 2021.” And the caps went sailing in the air above the roar of the student body.
When Adam and Julia, found John, he was posing for pictures with his friends on the 10 yard line with the school logo in the background. He came over to give his folks a hug.
“You ready?” his Dad asked.
“Ready for what?”
“The rest of your life. That’s what. It’s not gonna be easy, ya know.”
“I’m not looking for easy. Somebody once told me that anything worthwhile comes with effort and pain and by making it through the difficult times.”
Dad poked the kid. “You learn that in school?”
“No sir. I picked it up from this old guy I know.”
And there you have it. The heart of a graduate. He didn’t win any ribbons, but I think he’ll be just fine.