This year was a weird one.  My school system shifted our instructional calendar earlier (we used to start after Labor Day; this year we started at the beginning of August!), so instead of my high school kids graduating in the middle of June, I suddenly found myself doing the ceremony this past Saturday, May 26th.

Every year I write my seniors a letter.  They typically run two pages, 10-point font, single-spaced.  Since I teach both middle and high school band, I’ve had some of these kids for 7 years.  The connections we form over that time are strong, and when I write these letters, I can provide insight and advice that most teachers wouldn’t be able to provide.

Most of the time it’s all positive things, as I tend to have fantastic kids that have their heads screwed on right.  Sometimes, though, what I write is not well received initially, as I am honest telling them exactly what they need to hear in order to start their adult life-adventure off well.  If they’re a jerk… I tell them.  If they’re smart but are wasting their talents… I let them know.  Occasionally I’ll upset a kid so much that they won’t talk to me any more for a couple years.

And that’s okay. This task I took on years ago feels like an important duty to me now.  I’d rather say what needs to be said and hurt their feelings than pat them on the head and send them on their way without addressing the important things.  I do it tactfully, and I offer advice to fix the problems.  I love these kids, and I want them to be successful, contributing members of society, raising good families and engaging in meaningful work and relationships.  Every senior gets one for their trouble of putting up with me for so long.

Well, on Saturday, I forgot one.

There is a young man, whom we’ll call Neal, that I had in band in 6th grade.  He started off middle school a hot mess, and the problems continued throughout his school career.  He couldn’t make eye contact, would sometimes get violent, exhibited abrupt and extreme emotional shifts and certainly did not handle frustration well, which made learning an instrument quite the challenge.  Neal was constantly bullied for his mannerisms and was always a target for kids who wanted to bring him down with them.  He also chose friends who were not good influences on him, taking advantage of his willingness to please and his kind heart under the rough exterior.

Neal’s parents weren’t around, and when they did poke their noses into his life, they’d consistently hurt him emotionally, letting him down in all kinds of ways.  He lives with his grandparents who do the best they can, advocating for him and showing him love and affection.  They were there for him at Neal’s 8th grade band Spring Concert when another kid took his part during the performance and upset him so much that he walked out in the middle of a piece.  I was proud of him for not punching the kid in the face… I sure wanted to.

After 8th grade, he stopped doing band, mostly because he had a lot of resource classes he had to take but also because his  friends influenced him to avoid anything artsy.  I still saw him in the hall occasionally and said hi in my usual way, but he always kept his eyes averted.

I’d speak with his grandmother once in a while to see how he was doing.  She told me about Neal’s experiences and struggle in school, court, and at home.  She would always express regret that he didn’t do band after middle school.  I kept up with him some but I didn’t really have any interaction with him since we were rarely in the building at the same time (since I work at two schools and he did a special program off-campus).  Slowly he became a memory, a student that I used to have.

At our graduation, the band, orchestra and choir perform.  Since we were inside due to inclement weather, I found myself sitting right next to the stage steps that the kids walk up to get their diplomas.  As we finished playing our Graduation Medley and the students began to file up to walk the stage, I noticed I was in the perfect spot to reminisce and reflect on each kid as they passed.  The first couple rows came and went, and I got to share a handshake or a nod with a couple kids that I hadn’t seen or talked to in years.

And then I saw Neal!!! He was in line!

This young man, who’d endured so much pain and heartache in his life, was about to complete high school.  And he had the biggest grin on his face that I’d ever seen!

When he was four kids back in line from walking across the stage, I shook his hand.

“You’re graduating!”  Duh.

“I know!”

“I’m proud of you,” I said.

He paused.  He was now three kids back.

“That means a lot to me.  You have no idea.”

And then he was on the steps.

His name was called and he walked across the stage, got his diploma, smiled for the camera, and then went back to his seat.  The row of graduates that is lined up to walk the stage remains standing at their seats until the last kid on the end gets back; then they all sit down together.  So I got to see Neal standing tall, clutching the diploma to his chest, his tassel hanging down into his smiling face.  He was whispering something to the girl next to him, and she was laughing.

Then, the next row of kids was in front of me and that was the last time I saw Neal.

I don’t typically cry at graduations.  This was my tenth one at this school and while I get emotional sometimes, I know I’m going to either see them again or I’m so excited for them to get out of there and start their adult life that I just don’t let it get to me.

Neal was different;  I got misty.  Because of the missed opportunities? Because I should have fought harder to keep him in my program? Because I was so excited and proud to see him finish high school despite all the suffering?

I don’t know… probably all of it.

Thinking back now, I think I was sad as well as proud.  Sad that I can’t adopt all these kids, that every kid doesn’t have a Daddy.  Yet proud that Neal had the grit to overcome his problems and get on with his life.

So Neal did not get a letter from me.  However, I think our exchange at the steps of the dais was more meaningful than any letter I could’ve written him.  All I can do now is commend his life into God’s hands and pray that he will become the man that God wants him to be.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone.  May God bless the families of those who’ve fallen protecting this country where we can have graduations like the one I experienced on Saturday.