Graduation day is made for pride and prizes and unsolicited advice that will be lost in the fizz of the moment and recycled years later. I figure that by the time my girls are done with college--or maybe even high school--it will be way too late to make an impression on them. But my youngest girl's class's upcoming Fourth Grade Recognition Day, the end of lower school, the lip of higher learning, is a chance to catch her on her way and hand her a compass and a map.
I sometimes think she's already way ahead of me. The world comes to them in earnest so young: the testing, the teams, the workday that lasts longer than mine and often seems harder. The locker--just keeping that organized would have been beyond my 10-year-old self, but here she is, 4 ft. 11 1/2 in. (151 cm) of impish energy and poise and purpose, held together by imagination and Gummi Bears.
So what would I tell her while I have the chance? That you and your classmates have changed since you arrived in kindergarten: you can read now, write in cursive, know the backstroke and long division and the state capitals. But middle school is an identity crisis waiting to happen. Right now your glorious brain is firmly lodged in the good head on your shoulders, which sit atop a body whose feet are firmly planted on the ground. All of this is about to change.
Your brain is going to sweep and swell into all sorts of new directions and dimensions. It will encounter Ambiguity. Ambivalence. Algebra. Your body is about to be taken over by aliens, behave in ways you can't control, grow in ways you can't contain. At times your feet will seem nowhere near the ground. I fell down the stairs a lot in middle school. Basic coordination was often beyond me. Confusion is part of the curriculum.
You've been taught to try to do the right thing, but you may find it's now harder to know what that is. We taught you not to tattle; now the honor code requires you to. We told you to listen to your teachers; now we'll say that you also have to think for yourself. You've learned the game of baseball, but now the field is 50% bigger and pitchers can be called for balking. It's a subjective application of a subjective rule. Get used to it.
Your friendships will get tangled like tagliatelle, and it will be a challenge to keep straight the crushes, the feuds, the screen names. Yet as you cope with these grown-up entanglements, remember to be nice to little kids. You were little yourself once. And to your parents. You are about to go through a phase in which we say only annoying, irrelevant and inconvenient things. By the time you are ready to graduate from high school, you may find our company bearable again. In the meantime, our job is to keep you safe, let you trip occasionally, shut down your machines and send you outside to play, keep our sense of humor in the face of your exuberant teenage hostility, and continue to cuddle with you on occasion and in weak moments when you remember how nice it feels to have strong arms around you, whether you need them or not.
Your world will be full of surprises. Some will scare you, some will sting. But think of what you have already studied. You read about the great explorers who found this country while looking for someplace else. You learned about the American Revolution, whose leaders surprised even themselves with what they were prepared to risk for their freedom. You devoured Harry Potter, which was written by a woman who wanted to write serious novels until a wizard entered her train compartment and made her write wonderful ones instead. You owe the existence of the Post-it notes in your binder to the 3M researcher who tried to find a stronger glue and changed the world by failing: he found a weaker one instead.
Surprises, by their nature, come in disguise, masked sometimes as disappointments or detours when they're in fact dreams turning solid, if you'll just step aside and give them some air. It is actually in the official graduation rule book that someone has to quote Emerson to you, so in case everyone else forgets, I would note his instruction to "mount to paradise/ By the stairway of surprise."
And then, along with a diploma, I'd hand over a permission slip. I'd want you to keep it handy and whip it out whenever the breath is too heavy on the back of your neck. It's especially good for the summer days ahead: permission to read books that are not on any reading list. To eat foods that aren't good for you. To make messes. Build forts. Play spud. And leave yourself some room to be surprised.