Our graduating class of twenty-five students was preparing for months. We were practicing the song that we were to sing together at the Graduation Exercises, called “This Will Be Our Last Song Together”, the Nana Mouskouri rendition.
My dress was recycled from when I was a junior bridesmaid at the marriage of one of my brothers’. It was full length, cream colored, and made of a flowy soft material. My aunt made changes by adding pretty silk brown ribbons to it. I loved it. And it was free.
Regrettably, I had gotten a new hairstyle in preparation for the big day. It was awful! Too short for my face, unfortunately a style that was not flattering at all. But I was graduating, ready for the next, and other than my first trainer bra at fifteen, the most significant transition in my young life.
On the morning of the celebration, all the students were ushered into the Home Economics Room where we were fitted with our caps and gowns. I looked around at my fellow students and thought, “This is REAL! We did it!” Everyone looked so dressed up and officially ready to enjoy this initiation into adulthood.
The day started with a church service, which looking back was odd, as we were graduating from a public school, but as long-standing traditions go, added to the fact that this small town had a strong Catholic majority, it was never questioned (by the Catholics anyway). The service was strangely somber for a celebration, but nice, and then we went to the High School Gymnasium for the awards ceremony, or what was referred to as the Graduation Exercises.
The gymnasium was completely full of rows of chairs with family, friends and teachers. I was feeling nervous as we were led onto the stage with our fellow students. I was chosen to be the French Valedictorian. The French teacher helped me to translate what I had written, into French and we practiced together for the weeks preceding the event. She helped me to use the proper French language rules and phrasing emphasis.
I remember the emotions that welled up inside me when we were singing our song. We had spent so much time together every day for the past three years of high school. I was engaged to a fellow student, so we were each other’s graduation escorts. I had gotten a volleyball scholarship for a college in the neighboring province and we had grand plans of maneuvering within a long-distance relationship. I enjoyed going through this rite of passage with him, and although there had been some significant warning signs that he would not be an appropriate choice as my future husband, at the time I told myself that all was well with the world, and that he would be included in my future plans.
There were several loved ones present to celebrate my day. My Grandmother was very excited for the occasion and showed me her new dress weeks in advance. I had spent much time with her during my high school years. She was loving and nurturing, treated me like I was so special, that I could do no wrong. I would often stay out way past my curfew on school nights and when my mom would ask what time I arrived home the previous night, she would just shrug her shoulders and say that she was not sure or just did not know. She was protective of me and provided unconditional support and
nurturing unforgettable hugs that I soaked up happily.
For years, my Grandmother listened with enthusiasm to every day-to-day dramatic teenage story, and there were many. She has been gone for decades and I am forever grateful for the many sacred secrets we still hold.
During the Graduation Ceremony, I delivered my Valedictorian Address with a nervous slightly shaky voice and then the awards were presented. When my name was called for the French Award, I had had a feeling that it would be me, since my marks were high, and I was chosen for the Valedictory Address. The Physical Education Award was given to both me and a fellow student who had consistently higher marks than me, but I was just as athletic and hungrily competitive as she was. I was okay with sharing it with her. Later I heard that her feelings were otherwise. I felt a bit of a sting with that news.
The final and most prestigious award to be given was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Award for all around outstanding student. The Master of Ceremony announced the recipient, “Michele Willick.” I was shocked! I felt my face flush. I could not believe that I was chosen. Yes, I worked hard at school, I was involved in every school sport and activity that time would allow, I was involved in the community, and of course, also balanced all of that with boyfriends. I was equally dedicated to both. There were others who had achieved so much academically, who were also involved in extracurricular activities, but they chose me. I was not the most popular. I was a farm girl with hand-me-down clothes from girl cousins and daughters of family friends. I was not special. I was the “country mouse” from the children’s story about the country mouse and city mouse. I was wearing a recycled dress and accepting this award with a horrible haircut.
When my name was announced, I learned later, my Grandmother, sitting proudly in the packed high school gymnasium, fainted. The shock and the pride and the love was too much. How dearly loved I felt by her.
Looking back, the awards were less about winning, and more about being acknowledged, about accomplishing, about being seen--as working hard, as deserving, as special. It was an “against the odds” sort of special. It was a supportive catapult during a rite of passage into adulthood.
There would be many more experiences of rising out of the ashes, of being seen for who I was, of having strong women as every day teachers, and as ever to this day my Grandmother guiding me and loving me into and through every stage of my life. Her extreme reaction on my Graduation Day was a visceral reaction of our deep connection to each other. She was not my first teacher of feminine strength and extraordinary connection, but she has been my most constant one and continues to be so.
This vivid memory of my Graduation Day and of my Grandmother surfaced during a writing workshop where we were led through a guided meditative process down a meandering river, prompted to return to our birth and onward through our life’s pivotal moments—the not-so-good and the good, all of it…embracing and honouring every point of initiation in our sacred journey called life.
Writer, daughter, mother, grandmother, and author of
“I Married an Atheist…thank God!”