He marched tall and proud down the aisle, in cap and gown, a serious look on his face.
Today, he would receive his diploma, he would be a high school graduate. He would achieve one of his major goals in life.
I sat next to his brother, and his mother. A half hour from now, he would have a serious, one on one talk with his brother, about life, and finishing high school, and about making something out of himself.
He’d be speaking from experience, half way through a seven year prison sentence. Life isn’t easy for him here, but he keeps moving ahead, keeps learning, and keeps growing. He’s taking more steps now, almost done with his master gardeners class, becoming an expert on the kitchen garden he manages.
And, he’d be changing the family agenda, leaving behind the words of his father, telling him he’d never graduate from high school, no one in the family ever had. From behind these walls, he speaks his mind, telling his family who he is becoming, and urging them along in their own journeys.
When his name is called, he leaps onto his feet, and clutches the diploma with all his might, breaking into a big grin. He pauses for the photo, his eyes glistening with joy.
“It’s mine. I did it,” I can hear him say to himself, as the crowd gives him a round of applause.
A while ago, he almost didn’t make it. There was that last assignment, the last project to finish before he’d be done. He kept fooling around with it, not getting it done, putting it off.
It wasn’t very hard to do. He’d paid attention, learned the material, and could tell you all about it, any time you asked. But, that last step, putting it down on paper, finishing the project, was slowing him down.
We’d talked about it, over coffee, his dance of moving around it, pushing it to one side, and not getting it done. And, nothing much was happening.
I asked him if he was hearing his dad’s voice, about not finishing high school, not being able to achieve anything meaningful in his life.
Tears filled up his eyes, then spilled down his cheek.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Big time.”
We let that sink in, a nice spot of silence in our otherwise lively conversation, the conversations we’d had at this table for the last year and a half. Conversations about life, and his childhood, and school, and all the other things he liked sharing with me.
“You don’t have to listen to that voice, you know,” I said, quietly.
His dad’s been gone six years now, and some in his family still blame him for dad dying too soon. He’s still sorting through what all that means, and doesn’t mean any more.
“I know, but his words keep bouncing around inside, just when I’m doing well,” he replied.
“I think you deserve that diploma,” I said. “You’ve worked hard for that. It’s yours if you really want it.”
“I do. I really do,” he answered.
I didn’t ask him about school the next couple of visits. I’d bide my time, wait for him to sort it all out. It’s not my place to boss him around, or be like his dad was to him. He knew what he had to do, and he knew the demon in the basement, and what its name was. It was his battle, not mine.
It’s tough enough for him to deal with me, coming every week and talking. This mentor work is hard for him, hard to deal with me, and my patience and my commitment to him. Oh, and my passion and my opinions, too. He knows where I’m coming from, how stubborn I can be.
All those conversations come flying back to me now, as I watch him stand with the rest of his class, as they flip over their tassels, becoming official graduates, and hearing yet another thunderous round of applause.
As we get ready to leave, giving him more time to talk to him mom and his brother, he hands me his diploma.
“You keep this, until I get out,” he says, quietly, looking deep into my eyes.
“And, happy Father’s Day.”
--Neal Lemery, 6/17/2012