Appreciating the art of the transition

A kindergarten graduation? I thought. with gowns and diplomas? I can't relate at all. Unless....

I live on a tiny island far from everywhere because it has what I loved most as a child: woods, ocean, berries to pick, dirt roads for walking barefoot, ponds on which to skate. At night the dark is uninterrupted. Everyone knows everyone else; cars stop in the middle of the road to chat. By spring, lobster buoys spread across our cove like confetti, and the boats ply the water, wives' names scrolled on the sterns.

"But," my mother asks often, "is scenery enough?"

Often, I'm tempted to say "no" as my children study in double classrooms with outdated textbooks and no funds for art. "No," I almost say, unable to relate to the people who've always lived here as they cheerfully decorate for holidays.

For Halloween, to win a town prize, every house is trimmed with orange lights, countless witches pasted on doors. By Nov. 1, Santas are flying over plastic mangers, and blue lights (never taken down all year) are lit. Easter eggs pepper the trees in spring. Flags border lawns for the Fourth of July, while daughters - from the time they can walk - wear dresses that cost more than my wedding dress and are judged on their beauty. The winners are crowned with the entire town crowding the gym to watch.

I can't relate at all. I explain to my children that Miss Fourth of July is based on false values, and no, we're not putting up tacky plastic pumpkins or blue lights, and a wreath is enough for Christmas. "But to each his own," I say.

Until it's something that involves my son.

His kindergarten teacher is the epitome of nice. Clear skin, long glossy hair. She's soft-spoken and polite. She says to me, in her patient way, "I understand."

I was simply going to state my case and leave, but with her calmness, my mouth opens. "I understand, too," I say, "that this is a small town, a small school, and obviously it's important for people here to celebrate the smallest things. But graduation isn't necessary for kindergartners going into first grade. And then, another graduation at the end of eighth grade?

"In southern Maine," I continue, unable to stop myself because she's listening so sweetly, "we had one graduation, the real one, when you left high school because you'd worked hard for 12 years and now you were going out into the world - not to the next classroom. I think graduation every other year and wearing gowns undermines the importance of the real graduation later."

"That's fine," she says, unruffled. "If you don't want your son to participate in kindergarten graduation, I understand."

"Thank you," I say.

When I reach the door, she says gently, "I hope your son doesn't feel left out as the others get their gowns and practice for their big day...."

* * *

I give my son the envelope of money to pay for his cap and gown, his teacher's words gnawing a hole in my righteousness that my son falls through to join his class.

The entire town attends the graduation in the gym, the same surge of relatives that a year ago attended the preschool graduation, complete with diplomas. Sliding into a row, feeling coerced, I say loudly to another teacher, my walking friend, "So exciting! The prom tonight, and I bought my son a car - after all, he's graduating. From kindergarten! I'll have to drive the car, of course, but isn't that what we do? Lots of money for learning how to color, and - my goodness! - going all the way down to the next classroom to first grade!"

"Sit down and shut up," she says.

The teacher and her little children walk in to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," cameras clicking madly away. The children wear little gold gowns, the little girls all in white, all small with pudgy little hands, rosy cheeks, and the big, clear eyes of childhood, trying so hard to march. They fall off their chairs on the stage and wave to their parents. They recite poems and walk proudly and crookedly to the outstretched gift of a diploma from their teacher, who says musically, "Congratulations," and shows them which hand to use for the handshake.

And I wonder why I didn't bring a tissue, fat tears hovering in my eyes, and I have to use my sleeve, because I think I'm going to cry and not stop at the beauty of the children, at their voices, their gowns, and their shining faces on a stage for all of us to witness before it goes away.

A knot is lodged in my throat as I hide my face, moved by such a simple - and I thought unnecessary - event acknowledging the ordinary transitions of us before it all changes. The insistence of making a big to-do, as each season passes by, in the shape of little gowns, big eyes, a soft voice, as we - all of us, for this moment - sit on the edge of our seats, aware of how much we love.

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