I once knew of a junior high school that staged a yearly graduation ceremony they called “Moving On.” The word for what the ceremony actually was never appeared in the proceedings. It was as though the people staging it were unaware that calling something by a different name doesn’t make it something different. Were they afraid of stealing the high school’s thunder by using the G-word? Were they captivated by an imagined sense of unique ingenuity? Whatever the reason for the name change, the concept was wrong. Their graduates were only partly moving on.
In this season of graduations (or if you prefer, of movings on), let’s reflect on what graduation is and what it isn’t. At its heart, graduation is one of life’s pivotal moments. It basically means concluding the work you’ve been doing and leaving the place where you’ve been doing it. On the night of my high school graduation, a friend and I walked around our small town into the wee hours, finally ending up back on campus. But as we sat in the football bleachers, the sprawling building – once our home turf – brooded darkly in the distance. We knew it didn’t want us anymore. We no longer belonged.
But what we’d learned there, the ways in which we’d changed, the experiences we’d had, the people – teachers and peers – we’d come to like and respect (and some others who’d occasionally made life as pleasurable as a three-day flu ) were all still with us. We weren’t moving on from that. The substance of what we’d come through – and the ways that it had affected us – wouldn’t be left behind. In short, we do graduate from times and places, but we do not graduate from our formative moments.
And that leads to another point about graduation. We didn’t realize all that formative stuff was formative when it was happening. It’s like realizing that life is made up of seconds, but not understanding that every second is taking us somewhere. To another point in life. The little things: that comment by a teacher or a parent or a friend, that seemingly insignificant decision or that encounter we thought would never matter in the long run somehow turn out to shape us.
So if you’re a participant in this graduating season, think not about what you’re leaving, but rather of what you’re taking with you. Yes, we must never stand still. We must continue to grow, to progress, hopefully to improve. To move on. But as we do, let us continue to be informed by those little places within us where we are still each of the ages we were when the hammer and chisel of experience performed their finest work. We are not, after all, the sum of what will be, but rather, of what has been.