No one Catholic school student is like another

Parents and school staffers are sometimes surprised—and relieved—on graduation day

By George Valadie

Since we’ve retired, the concept of time has taken on an odd sensation.

Random days are crazy busy. But others—when there’s not as much to do—feel like they crawl by, hours barely creeping along if they move at all, broken up only by reruns of Andy Griffith, an attempt at Wordle, Quordle, three meals, and an afternoon snack.

Around the country, though, and around this diocese, I imagine there are parents who feel it’s been nothing but a blur as they ready themselves for the event they have both prayed for and dreaded: their child’s graduation.

They were without question my favorite weekends of a 46-year career in education and still hold many fond memories.

I recall a commencement not too many years ago when after diplomas had been awarded, I ran into a senior’s aunt and uncle, who had themselves been parents in our school some 10 years prior. They had traveled cross country to honor their niece, who was now taking her turn crossing the stage of success.

“Ten years since our girl was here, can you believe that? Can’t believe how fast it’s gone by?” dad asked.

I nodded in agreement, “You’re so right, but I won’t lie, there have been a few days along the way that have dragged a bit.”

Time is funny like that.

And isn’t the same true for moms and dads, as they’ve no doubt uttered quite a few will-it-ever-get-heres mixed with an equal amount of I-can’t-believe-it’s-the-last-time?

Most enjoyable for me was watching each kid, one by one, take his turn in line, just moments before crossing the stage. Some smiling proudly, some nervous about the future, some simply fearful of tripping in front of the crowd.

And while most were trying to picture their future, I often stepped back into their past, back to when I had met them as freshmen.

Years ago when I used to interview each applicant, I’d always ask the same question. It sounded something like this:

“Have you ever been to a high school graduation? At ours, right after the seniors toss their caps into the air, we finish with a procession.

“Faculty exits first, followed by the graduates. Our teachers always see some student pass by and they sigh, ‘Boy, we’re gonna miss that kid.’

“But then another follows and someone mutters under their breath, ‘Oh, thank God, they’re gone!’

“Tell me, before we accept you here at our school, which will they say about you?”

If this year’s group has wrapped up its final year like the classes before it, someone will get to brag to the crowd about the millions of dollars of scholarships they will have earned. And though COVID-19 interfered a lot, I still doubt it’s possible to accurately track all the service hours they will have given.

We’ve already heard of some having been admitted to the finest colleges in the country, while others will chase their degree at the school of their dreams—and isn’t that all that matters?

Beauty still lies in the eye of the beholder.

Though it’s not our show anymore, Nancy and I are still planning to attend. It’s not even been a full year, so we still know all these kids and have found that we have missed them dearly.

After getting the decades of others before them that far, I could never bring myself to say I was “happy” to see any of them go, but truth be told, there were always one or two who had found my last nerve and stepped on it . . . more than once.

For them, I was both surprised and proud they’d made it. And for one or two more, God has no greater miracle to his credit.

There were no scholarships for these, no colleges came calling. If you believe as I do that all people “have a thing,” well, school just wasn’t theirs.

There was always a reason they found it so darn tough to get this far. When it came to academics, some just didn’t, others just couldn’t. Some had to climb over impediments of self-inflicted stupidity. Others had to battle their own cross-wired brain and sadly—and wrongly—believed themselves to be stupid.

I was always more amazed at the few who fought every rule we had. Dress code or cell phones—they loved walking the tightrope they’d strung precariously just above the exit.

There were times they strode down the halls smelling of attitude and arrogance—the smirky, snippy, I-wish-paddles-were-still-in-fashion kind.

We had all sorts of folks who believed we should have tossed such ding-dongs. Why put up with such nonsense? I get that, I really do. And on occasion, I allowed some to have a second chance—somewhere else.

But I also think the mission of a Catholic school is to embrace the needy as well. And Lord knows, these were the ones who needed us. In an odd way, I admit, but few needed us more.

I used to tell people that if you gave us, if you give any Catholic school, four years with a kid, we would win. We’ll help them get it together. We’ll help them get ready to go where they might not have even known they wanted to go.

Not all of them of course, no one bats a thousand, no one wins every game. Neither do we, but I like our record.

I talked to their parents—often. Many of those moms and dads worked a lot harder than we did. And they knew way better than we the struggles their kids faced or created.

And when I got to shake their hands afterward, I could see more than just joy, there was also that hard-to-hide hint of relief that leaked out from the smile, the voice, the tears.

Nancy says the first real instruction a mom gets with her child is when the doctor says, “Push! Push!”

And 18 years later, here they are, still pushing that same child, through the school, out of the nest, into the world.

“You’re safe in my womb, I’d keep you there forever if I could, but you’re killing me and you gotta get out,” which evolves into “You’re safe in your room, I’d keep you there forever if I could, but you’re killing me and you gotta get out.”

Neither occasion comes all that easy.

There’s a beauty to working in schools—even in these pandemic years, as insane as they have been.

No student has ever been exactly like another. Sorta like snowflakes—without the peacefulness. Sorta like different kids in the same family.

Schools spend public-relations dollars advertising the accomplishments of our best and brightest. If it’s brag-able, believe me, we’ll boast with the best of them.

But in reality, what we do with those other young people—that might be our finest work.

I’m looking forward to celebrating with all of them because we’ll not only celebrate their diploma, we’ll celebrate great hope.

No, they’re not all the same. But they can all make it through. It’s amazing the miracles God can accomplish . . . especially if we push.

Heavenly Father—Please be with these students as they go where they do not know. As they seek to grow in knowledge, we ask they grow in faith. As they start to conquer the world, we hope they conquer their fears. As they strive to find their place, we hope that they find you.

Please go where we cannot, protect when we cannot, give strength that we cannot.

And bring them safely home. Amen.


George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.

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