For many students, this is it. It's the end of the line. A very long line, but it is finally the end. Of course, lot's of speeches will be made about how this is not the end, but the beginning. About a new life, filled with potential, and how the world lies at the feet of every graduate. Some will thank their teachers and parents. Many will express some anxiety about getting out into the 'real' world. But for the vast majority of graduating students and their families, this is a joyous occasion. They walk across the stage, get their diplomas in their caps and gowns and exit the stage. For most of us teachers, it is the last time we will see them for better or worse. For some of us teaching in large school systems it might also be the first time we see them for the last time.
The highlight of every ceremony is when the students walk across the stage, and the families cheer, hoot and holler despite an administrator's admonishment to refrain until the end.
I've observed several of these, and have been actively involved in some of the real highlights. While families hoot and holler for their favorites, it's a pretty isolated thing. Students generally refrain from being overly enthusiastic towards each other, except for their closest friends. Families cheer for only those they know. With one exception.
Niles was a young man with a severe case of autism combined with some serious OCD issues. I wasn't there when he first entered Magnolia H.S., but I did get a chance to teach him for a couple of years at the ages of 21 and 22. He was 6'2, 190 lbs. and thrived on sameness. In the cafeteria, he always sat in the same place at the same table. One time when the rest of the school was on the testing schedule, some unfortunate girl was sitting in his spot. He simply picked her up by the neck and moved her. He didn't hurt her, but she was pretty scared. We always went to lunch when the lines were clear because Niles moved like the wind. People were simply annoying bits of furniture that got in his way. One day he even knocked the assistant principal to the floor, as she refused to get out of the way when Niles came flying through. My kids have never been intimidated or impressed by power or position or status. He always passed people on the side closest to the wall. One day, a student passed him and passed him on the wrong side. This small freshman had no idea why Niles tore after him, but he ran as fast as he could with Niles in hot pursuit. The kid was terrified to see this big guy running after him. Queen happened to see this and called out to the freshman to stop.
"HELP!" yelped the freshman.
"Just stop and freeze! He's not going to hurt you!"
The poor kid cowered and trembled in the middle of the hall and Niles ran to him, past him and circled him 3 times. Then walked briskly back to our room without laying a hand on him and really not even looking at the kid who probably needed to change his underwear afterwards.
So many stories about Niles with the blank stare and a terrible foot fetish. Niles who quickly ate his lunch and covered his ears, run-walking back to the room to escape the noise in the cafeteria.
It was going to be the last graduation before Mr. Rogers retired. Everything had to be perfect. But there was problem. Niles was graduating. The administration was terrified that this young man would do something to wreck this occasion. They suggested that Niles might have a private graduation in Mr.Roger's office. But we were having none of that. The boy had done 7 years of high school and had earned the right above and beyond anyone else. Even if it was only a special education diploma.
We compromised by making a series of accomodations. First, Niles would wait in a room behind the stage instead of on the floor with all the other graduates. Second, when it came time for him to cross the stage, we would have someone at the other end to receive him and whisk him out and back to our classroom. He would not have to endure the long program. Third, while he went across, someone would walk on the floor, in front of the stage to direct him and be close by if anything happened. That person would be me. This was my first graduation and I would be very intimately involved.
We practiced all week, taking Niles to the gym and having all sorts of different people on stage to hand him a replica of an actual diploma and shake his hand. We had various women and girls do this, wearing their sandals, as women and sandals were a trigger for Niles to fall on the ground and seduce the ground, so to speak. All of the practices went flawlessly. We had the head of the department play superintendent or principal just so she could help reassure the administration that all would be well.
Queen had to do some convincing to get Niles' father to even attend. He was just as scared as everyone else that Niles would go nuts. Niles' parents were divorced, and he lived with his father. He had not seen his mother in years, despite the fact that she lived in the same town and worked in a nursing home that some our more social kids visited often. But Queen somehow managed to convince both his parents to not only show up, but to even sit together.
The stage was set. Graduation day came. A nervous assistant principal – the one Niles had floored the year before – asked if we were ready. We said we were. But in reality, there was one factor that we had not counted on. We had not even considered it. All we were concerned about was Niles getting across the stage without knocking down Principal Rogers and General Superintendent and the entire school board. We had practiced and were ready.
As the program began, Niles was in his room, behind the stage with Queen, who had known him since he had came to MHS. She was his one constant in the myriad of changing paras and teachers. I went backstage to that room to check on them and let them know how far in the program we were. Finally I went back and said, "It's time."
Queen was a nervous wreck. I was just a bit concerned, but was okay. Afterall, we had practiced this dozens of times, right? What could happen?
But we had practiced in an empty gymnasium. Now there were over 2000 people watching! I was totally unprepared for what happened next.
Queen took Niles to his mark. The announcer read his name. Queen pointed to the Principal Rogers who held out the diploma. Niles walked right on over, just like we had practiced. I walked with him in front of the stage on the floor of the gym, pointing and gesturing to the Superintendent and the safety of the far side. Niles took his diploma. And he stopped. And looked at the huge sea of faces. Eyes. Thousands of eyes. My heart froze.
I actually felt it before I heard it. I was facing the stage, with my back towards the audience, totally fixed on Niles and his movements. Or in this case, his lack of movement. I pointed and almost barked his name when it hit me from behind. The unexpected force of a compression wave generated by a gym full of 2000 people roaring, clapping and shouting and cheering almost knocked me down.
It was truly deafening. Niles' classmates made the biggest racket I had ever heard from directly behind me and directly at him. Jesus. I closed my eyes and prayed. Good thing it was a one-word prayer, because just as I opened them, Niles was on his way…to the proper side of the stage. I never did see if he shook the Superintendent's hand.
Once off the stage and out, I breathed after what seemed like forever. Queen had her car waiting on the other side of the building, by the door in a straight line from the stage. Just like that, Niles was done. He waited in his now-former classroom and sat at his desk in the corner one last time until the conclusion of the ceremony.
Every year that we have severe and profound kids cross the stage, it is the same. The crowd erupts in the greatest, loudest eruption of applause of the entire day.
There is another side and another part to the graduation story. It continues with part 2.