I stood in the corridor of the chemistry department; its characteristic odor bothered me. As I moved into the formation a teacher suggested it was time to make, I could see beakers, microscopes, and atomic-element charts through the panel of glass above each classroom door.
My white graduation cloak and white mortarboard cap with its orange and gold tassels made me feel both giddy and sad. I liked high school and felt going away to a university wouldn't compare to these years.
My mother appeared in the hallway looking for me. I waved. She smiled and took tiny steps in her high heels until she reached me. The shiny floor was not slippery but appeared so, and she walked with a different stride from usual, in case the finish was polished wax.
I caught her fragrance of Shalimar, which contrasted with the chemicals.
``Hi, sweetie.'' She touched my arm. ``You look beautiful.''
She freed a few strands of my blonde hair that appeared to be caught under the mortarboard. ``I need your ring now. It goes to Joyce.''
I looked at the diamond set in hexagonal prongs, with two tiny sapphires on either side. The ring itself was platinum, and the setting looked liked lace from the side.
``Remember,'' my mother continued, ``it was mine, then your sister Carole got it when she started high school, then you, and now it's your sister Joyce's turn.''
``Now?'' I felt surprised that she'd come to me in the corridor right before this very special event.
``Didn't I give it to you as you lined up to graduate from elementary school? I remember holding your old-fashioned bouquet while you slipped it on.'' My mother was pretty, although I didn't tell her that. Her hazel eyes looked into mine, and I felt her timing was all wrong.
``But now,'' I whined.
``Now.'' She didn't move away. ``Things, honey, are not important; people are.''
I hated lectures on values, morality, philosophy. There I was, queuing up for commencement, and I was getting a people-are-important lecture.
Ever since ``Pomp and Circumstance'' played before my elementary-school graduation, I'd worn this ring. I loved the sparkle. I loved the lacy look. I loved that it was now an heirloom. I didn't want to give it up.
I COULDN'T see beyond the corridor, but tried to figure out how soon we would take our seats. I really wanted to stall handing over the ring, but I wiggled my fingers, forcing the platinum circle to rotate. I wanted it to rub against my skin for the very last time. Then I used my other hand's fingers and slid it off.
My mother inserted it into a velvet case she'd carried in her brown leather handbag. She hugged me, reminding me to walk straight and tall down the aisle, and to keep my head steady. Then she walked away.
My finger felt naked, and exposed was an indentation where the ring had been. I worried that my sister Joyce might not appreciate the tradition, and that maybe she'd lose the ring so it could never continue its generational journey.
``Line up, graduates. You've got about 10 minutes before the processional,'' a teacher ordered.
It was bad enough that we were confined to a smelly chemistry hallway so guests wouldn't see us. But now my gown was getting warm, and every time I moved my head in a certain position, the tassel tickled my cheek. I stuck my small hand in front of me. The pale pink polish I'd so carefully applied to my nails caught my attention, but all I saw below that was a vacant digit.
``Remember what we've practiced, students. When it's time to turn the tassels as graduates, turn them at the very same moment; you'll get a signal. Make sure no mortarboard is crooked! It's not a hat to be warn as a cap or any-which-way. Straight. Flat top.'' The teacher moved up and down the aisle of students.
I got caught up in the anticipation again. My father entered. I watched him walk and smiled at the familiar sight of his movements. His stride was pleasant.
``Hi, princess,'' he grinned.
``I'm too old for that,'' I blushed.
``Is it crowded in the auditorium?'' I asked.
``Yes. And the sunlight is streaming in from the long windows. It's a pretty room.'' He spoke softly.
``You always see the pretty, Dad.''
``I'm looking at you, aren't I?'' His light blue eyes met mine.
``Oh, Daddy.'' I reverted to my girlhood word for him.
``I've got something for you.'' He reached into the right pocket of his double-breasted suit and removed a ring box.
At first, I thought it was my familiar ring, and my mother had decided I could wear it for this ceremony, but the box was different.
My father opened the box, removed a white-gold ring with three tiny diamonds set in a raised oval, and then moved it onto my vacant ring finger. ``This is for you. It's new. It's yours to start an heirloom trip through time. Give it to your daughter, then her daughter....''
I cut him off with a whispered ``thanks'' and a shallow hug so my mortarboard wouldn't fall off. I was in ecstasy.
``Princess, remember it's a thing. Wear it and enjoy it, but it'll outlast all of us. People are precious, not things. But don't save it because it's new.''
Why, when he gave a speech, did it seem unlike a lecture? Was it his tone? Was it his quiet way that revealed his sensitivity? Was it that fathers-to-girls are special and not role models to be accepted/fought?
``We're ready to move,'' the teacher ordered.
The school band could be heard introducing the processional.
``I love you, Daddy.'' I looked at my beautiful ring.
He kissed my cheek and I inhaled the scent of his Yardley after-shave lotion. I knew I'd wear only that ring until I was engaged. My high-school class ring would go on my right hand. The chemistry corridor seemed less offensive since getting my ring, and I marched with my group out of the science wing and into the auditorium to our assigned seats.
While the commencement address was being recited, I wiggled my finger, watching the stones sparkle. I turned my tassel and felt grown up. Of course I'll wear my ring and not save it, I thought, and maybe eventually understand the ``people not things are precious'' philosophy. But for now I just wanted to look quickly and see if I could find where my parents were sitting.