Graduation wisdom: Look behind you

Does the future belong to graduates, or do graduates now belong to the past? A more inspiring idea than it first seems, drawing from a personal history can give the future special meaning. 

Danny Heitman
Author Danny Heitman stands with his daughter Eve as she prepares for her high school graduation.

As another commencement season arrives, we’ll hear a lot about how the future now belongs to this month’s graduates. But watching my own daughter graduate from high school this year, I’ve realized that she’s also secured something just as precious: a past. 

At Eve’s high school, an all-girls academy, seniors begin their final year on campus at a sunrise service, then conclude their career at the academy with a ceremony at sunset. That tradition is meant to remind the girls that lives include a number of beginnings and endings– a reality that few teenagers are readily able or willing to accept. The essence of youth, after all, is the pleasant sense, however illusory, that the supply of earthly years is infinite.

Returning from her sunset ceremony, though, Eve felt something different. Although not given to brooding introspection, Eve grew wistful as she came home. Her eyes misted a bit, and her voice cracked. “I feel sad,” she confessed.

My first impulse was to brush all of this away with a casual assurance that Eve’s life was still very much ahead of her, so full of promise as she goes off to college. That’s all true, of course, which is why graduation is such a happy time.

It occurred to me, though, that the best response to Eve’s sadness was simply to acknowledge it and let her nurse her hurt for a bit. 

What was Eve grieving, exactly? Her high school years had been a blast, full of rich experiences, deep friendships, big lessons. She had enjoyed every bit of it.

But the official close of her high school career has taught Eve that she now has a history. This sense that all of life is not on the horizon – that some of it, in fact, is behind our children – isn’t something we parents like to dwell on when we talk with our sons and daughters. But that basic grasp of past experiences is an important part of growing into adulthood.  

In acknowledging what’s transitory, teens come to see – and more fully appreciate – what endures.

When he was asked to address graduates a few years ago, historical filmmaker Ken Burns said that he wanted to avoid telling graduates that their future lay ahead of them. “I thought about this and I am now convinced that your future lies behind you – in our past, collective and personal,” Burns said. “If you do not know where you have been, how can you possibly know where you are going?”

What Eve is learning – and what all high school graduates eventually do – is that our past experiences often help propel us forward from moment to moment, giving our lives definition, urgency, and meaning.

It’s a lesson we have to keep teaching ourselves, no matter how long ago we graduated from high school.

Or so I was reminded at one of Eve’s commencement services – sitting in the stands, brushing away tears, and wondering how my little girl had grown so suddenly into a woman.

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