Last Monday night, family and friends celebrated as my son and 255 of his classmates received their high school diplomas
A week later, one of those students died.
My daughter was told about the death at school. My son found out via social media. My husband learned of it from my son. And I received a text message telling me the Spring Mills High School class of 2016 had already lost a member.
Within a few hours, the rumors were swirling through the neighborhood and on the internet. But there was element that never changed: the culprit was heroin
And while many are simply shocked that a kid with so much potential died from a drug overdose, I’m dealing with a range of emotions.
I’m saddened, and my heart breaks for my son’s classmates who are struggling to understand what happened. I’m overwhelmed with how this drug continues to gain strength in my community. And I’m frustrated with the political posturing that’s preventing real solutions to this horrible epidemic.
But, most of all, I’m angry.
I’m angry that so many people are expressing surprise that an athlete with decent grades could die from an overdose. This has been happening for years across the country, and pretending it couldn’t happen at our school was ridiculous.
I’m angry that my community has experienced dozens of overdose deaths since the beginning of 2016 and yet so many people want to blame the victims and their families instead of work toward a solution.
And most of all, I’m angry that drug dealing is yet another example of how money has become more important than human lives.
Nobody in the Class of 2016 can rewind the clock a week and get a do-over, and there is still plenty more heartache to come for everyone involved in this situation.
I can only hope that the members of my son’s graduating class, as well as the underclassmen who will follow in their footsteps, recognize that some of life’s most important lessons don’t happen in the classroom. Even more importantly, I hope they understand that those lessons mean nothing if they don’t use that knowledge in a meaningful way.
In a situation like this, turning those lessons into action is a matter of life and death.
Thirteen years ago,”Pomp and Circumstance” played as my son wore a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.
Because his class was extremely small, the formal ceremony was short. As the post-graduation celebration began, my son led his friends in a unique rendition of the “Chicken Dance.”
Throughout the afternoon, there were several other moments when he grabbed, or attempted to grab, the limelight. At one point, his teacher pulled me aside and whispered “All the world is a stage for Shepherd. Just enjoy it.”
But I couldn’t.
The next 13 years, starting in kindergarten, weren’t easy.
I worried obsessively about my son.
Even though my son was very smart and very funny, I worried that he didn’t have the same interests as his peers.
I worried that he was awkward and uncoordinated and would never find the place where he belonged.
I worried that he often seemed oblivious to what others automatically understood.
I even worried that he didn’t care that I was worried.
But somewhere between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my son taught me more than algebra and English literature classes ever could.
He taught me that going out on a limb will always be more interesting than standing on the ground hugging the trunk.
He taught me that winning a dance contest doesn’t necessarily require the best moves. It simply requires the most guts.
He taught me that more people appreciate the sheep who wonders off to explore new pastures than the ones who stay with the herd.
And he taught me that grabbing a mic and singing in front of the entire student body can never be embarrassing if you get everyone to sing with you.
On Monday, I will listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” while my son wears a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.
I wish I could guarantee he won’t lead his entire graduating class in a rendition of “The Chicken Dance,” but I can’t. Neither can I guarantee he won’t pull off one final, ridiculous high school stunt.
But here’s what I can guarantee: I won’t be worried.
Because I know that my unique, gifted, funny, ridiculous, smart, sarcastic son already has plenty of experience in finding his way in the often rocky terrain of life.
I also know, that his preschool teacher wasn’t entirely right. All the world is not just a stage for my Shepherd. Instead, all the world is HIS stage.
And I can’t wait to see his upcoming performances.
This upcoming week, my husband is scheduled to be the graduation speaker at his high school alma mater. Even though he makes his living talking to millions of people, he actually hates speaking in public.
Because of that, he’s not particularly happy that I encouraged him to go outside of his comfort zone. He thinks I don’t understand his apprehension because I actually enjoy public speaking.
What he doesn’t understand is that I’m simply jealous of the opportunity, and I’m living vicariously through him.
It’s not the spotlight or the attention that make me wish I could stand in his shoes. It’s the privilege of encouraging young people as they take that final step out of childhood and into adulthood.
Ironically, I don’t even remember who spoke at my high school graduation other than it was a white, male politician. Despite that, I still believe that the right words can make a big difference.
If I didn’t, I wouldn’t write.
But since I do write, I’m going to use this space to share my own words with the Class of 2013. What follows are highlights of the commencement speech I’ll never give:
1. As you get older, you will discover that high school wasn’t just a finite period of your life. It was a series of good and bad relationships and events that served as a platform from which you chose to stand still, dive or climb. My advice is to climb. Take the stairs. Rise above the need to be defined by others or the simple accomplishments of youth and discover who you really are. You’ll probably surprise yourself and all the people with whom you once shared the platform.
2. Don’t ever believe that your greatest moments are behind you. There are always opportunities to create more great moments, but they require moving on and doing something different. Many people are uncomfortable with change and will want to force the status quo on you. Don’t let them.
3. Never apologize for your opinions. Ever. Opinions aren’t facts, so you can never be wrong, and you can always change them as circumstances change. But opinions are valuable because they define the essence of who you are. Like any other valuable possession, people will try to take them from you by any means necessary. Don’t ever let them use religion or profits or cultural norms to buy your silence.
4. You’ve probably been told all of your life not to worry about what other people think about you, and in most circumstances, that’s true. But you should worry about what “the future you” will think about you. You are the only person who has to live with you your entire life. You can walk away from other people, but you will still be with yourself. Make sure you are a good companion. Treat yourself with the respect, care and love needed in any long-term relationship.
5. Before you get out of bed each day, think about the calendar. The day you are about to begin is absolutely unique, and in a few short hours it will simply be another day in history. Make sure that day counts in your own life history. Despite the obstacles you may be facing or the hurt you may be feeling, make sure you do something that makes that day memorable and meaningful. If you are stuck in a routine, break it just a little. Eat something unusual. Read something new. Talk to a stranger. Practice a random act of kindness. Your ultimate goal in life is to make every day count, but that sometimes requires a bit of work. Do the work anyway.