Without diploma

During the past year I participated in my eldest daughter's graduation. It was a first. Neither I nor my brothers, sisters, or parents ever graduated. One did not ''graduate'' from the inner-city schools that I attended. If one could afford to stay beyond the minimum legal age, one did; if not, then one left and found a job.

This year, on a bright, sunny day, the twin lines of young men and women meandered across the football field as they waited to march to their respective places behind the speakers. There was an air of excitement and expectancy that wove itself between graduate and proud parent. Speeches were made about faith and future, commitment to society's needs, and human progress. And, as each individual stepped to the podium to receive a diploma, cameras clicked and people applauded in a proud, unforgettable moment.

My daughter asked me if my graduation had been the same as hers. A little surprise showed when I told her that I had left school a month after my 15th birthday. It had been a raw, blustery day in March, and I walked away from the school building without excitement or regret. My schooling was over. There were teachers I remembered, and those that I'd just as soon forget. I had done my ''duty'' to my parents by sticking it out, and now it was time, as my father had reminded me, to ''get out and earn your way in the world.''

Sharon and I spoke about her options now as an 18-year-old graduate, and what mine were as a 15-year-old school leaver. To her honest questioning, I explained that, although I might have wanted to stay on, an incoming wage seemed more important at that time. By comparison her options seemed endless. A friend said to her, ''You can be anything you want to be.''

''Can I, Dad?'' she asked almost wistfully. I hesitated. I always have a little trouble with her friend's statement. I said, ''Well, you can certainly be anything you need to be, that much is certain.'' I remember wanting to be a lot of things, and on reflection none of them would have been at all practical or useful. It is not our wants but our needs that are met concretely by who we uniquely are.

Sharon mentioned the possibility of attending college for a variety of subjects and, if not, working at a broad choice of jobs until she had decided what she wanted to do. Maybe becoming a computer technician or a child-care expert, saving to travel the world or to buy her own car. At her stage I became a mailman, which wasn't the best job in the world, but, as my father would often tell me with a twinkle in his eye, ''It's better than walking the streets!''

I have, on occasion, envied those who enjoyed the college and university days of further education. But I have also been told by those same people, on occasion, that they have envied the education I received by being dropped in the ''deep end'' of life's pool and learning to swim early.

What have I learned?

For one thing, that living is made up not so much of broad general wants but of tiny just-for-the-moment needs. And once one separates the need from the want, then he goes on to define the need. A drowning pauper does not first need money but a rope.

For instance, I always wanted to get on well with everybody, but how to define the need? The need was to communicate. I was born and raised a Cockney, a class not exactly world renowned for its literary prowess. Yet right out of it came my fascination with the use of words. Differences like ''elegance'' for ''luxury,'' and ''shyness'' for ''timidity.'' I learned the difference between ''aggressive'' and ''assertive''; when to be openly ''frank'' and gently ''honest.'' I learned the difference between reason and a ''gut feeling.''

It was not a case of ''wanting'' to know the right word (in this case) but of the need. The need to be understood correctly and in the best possible way.

I have tried to pass these things on to my daughters. How much they have learned or appreciated them, only they will eventually find out. Because of the lessons I have learned on my way, it is tempting to accept that they do not have to go to college or find a profession. That, as with me, life itself can teach them all they need to know. But life, like love, honor, and commitment, doesn't always exist for us, but we for it.

In my continuing education, as it turned out, I have been attending university night school. They called me the other day and asked if I was interested in taking a degree program. I admit that the thought of a degree from Harvard was a little more than I might have expected.

But when Sharon came in that evening I discussed it with her. She was as bubbling as I was. But the years of working and providing, now as a single parent, had built into me a practicality that always came to the fore. What about the time? I said to her. What about the money? The want is there, but can the need be met?

Sharon pointed out that I only had her and her sister, Kate, to worry about, and ''we are quite able to take care of ourselves now, y'know, Dad.'' And the money?

''Well, I am working now,'' she said, ''and I can give you half my income.'' I began to protest.

''Dad, just think of it - a kid who left school at 15, has had no professional training, taking a degree at Harvard.'' I waited for that to sink in; then she put the icing on the cake. ''And,'' she said, coming over and hugging me, ''I'll be the first daughter I ever knew to have put her dad through college!''

Somehow, without really being able to pin it down, I have a feeling that a need within us both has been met.

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