There is history behind that picture of my daughter and me you see above. Short and long history, painful and joyful history, so much of it unexpectedly and wonderfully captured by a Grinnell College photographer that Iowa high noon a week and a half ago.
I had stood at the end of the ramp waiting for Sadie to walk down with her diploma for about an hour and a half, having miscalculated by 87 minutes when her turn was up. But the past five years had been full of miscalculations, starting with how long it took for her to graduate, or for us, Cheryl and me, to learn how to be parents of a college student rather than a child. It took some doing on both sides. I’m not so sure this experience is unique in the annals of parenting going back 2 million years, when the first daughter seeking her own path to Lake Victoria told her parents to take a hike off Olduvai Gorge. So if you’ve been there, no need to read on. But if you have a firstborn heading for college this summer, this might save you a coronary or the odd tumor.
Firstborns have it rough. They’re the guinea pigs of their parents’ worst illusion, that we can make them into perfect human beings. Of course the more we think so the more we wreck them, which we pretty much did in Sadie’s case. Her childhood was Guantanamo Bay Academy. (Her younger brother was luckier, more like a free-roaming knight on a Disney chessboard since he was 6.)
We may have gotten a few things right to get Sadie through high school—for which, by the way, we’re thankful to the Flagler County school system and its IB program: without it Grinnell College would not have accepted her—but it took us a while to realize that our job was mostly done by the time she turned 7 or 8.
We kept up the illusion of control through her high school years, so naturally the first chance she got in college, she fired us and failed out of her freshman year. It may not have been unusual. Barely half of American college students complete their degree, and even then, in six years. But to us, it was Armageddon. (Our college drop-out rate is the worst among developed nations, not because we’re dumber, but mostly because of cost: we have the dumbest financial crutch system, burdening students with debt and decreasing aid.)
Sadie had not lacked for aid. She’d gotten a full ride to Grinnell, a $50,000-a-year school (not including room and board). We thought it was over. She didn’t. She was merely putting on her Janus act, paying homage to the god of transitions and time, of beginnings and ends and re-beginnings. Killing her parents was part of the deal. Grinnell gave her a second chance as many colleges would not, setting a few conditions for her return, which she fulfilled, and restoring her full ride after a year in the hinterland of a community college. She even found a way to pay off most of her debts before graduation, working several jobs, and along the way she disinterred us from our own hinterland and restored us to parental status. By the time we showed up for that ceremony (coincidentally, on the anniversary of the beginning of the Lewis and Clark expedition) she had already secured her first career job, teaching elementary school in the Teach For America program, at the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. A little out there, bewildering and worrisome, but less so than if she’d ended up pushing papers from a felt-lined cubicle in the grout of corporate America. She was not trading in idealism for mammon.
Commencement ceremonies bring out that idealism. They’re uniquely American rituals that remind us of the best in us through so much concentrated success, and through those public addresses, those speeches and sermons in a nation shaped by words as much as by action. We’d sat (and stood) through what would be three hours of marches, speeches and those interminable roll calls of graduates that are also commencement season’s name-calling at its best. We cheered the awarding of honorary degrees to a few luminaries and former Grinnell graduates who exemplify how individuals make enormous differences in people’s lives, including Daniel Werner, a superstar lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center who’s represented farmworkers in Florida and won a federal labor-trafficking case that awarded $14 million to Indian guest workers defrauded by an Alabama company, the largest award of its kind. And we’d listened to a timely keynote address by Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani-born immigrant and Grinnell Class of 2001 graduate who went on to a career in stand-up comedy.
“When I came to Grinnell,” he told us, “I was a devout Muslim who had never romantically touched a girl, and I was going to get a degree that guaranteed me a job. By the time I graduated, I was basically a Rastafarian with a white American girlfriend and a philosophy degree. College changes you, is my point.” And how. He spoke of his experience as a brown-skinned immigrant ripe for heckles in post-9/11 America (naturally, being non-lily-white, he was called a terrorist, that cliché that’s become every immigrant’s yellow star). He referred at one point, without using his name, to U.S. Rep. Steve King, who represents a segment of Iowa and who is among this nation’s more unfortunate grifters of bigotry. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” King had tweeted in May, inexplicably unaware that American civilization would have been a leprous footnote to history without everybody else’s babies. The kind of babies Nanjiani could make with his white Southern wife.
“So here’s another concrete piece of advice I can give you: Have sex with an immigrant,” Nanjiani said in the best line of the morning. “We’re going through a tough time right now, and it would just be really great for morale. And it’s one way to ensure that you will definitely be on the right side of history.”
That was that morning’s history, that morning’s context, from where so much more than words were radiating across the rows of caps, gowns and earned insolence toward the front, of receding hairlines, purring girths and uncontained emotions in the outer orbits. We typically lose sight of our child’s whereabouts in these swarms, as it should be: we sat in back rows, Sadie sat somewhere up front, her texts of exasperation with the interminable ceremony her occasional signs of life. She’s been at her best when we’ve lost sight of her Cheryl and I, or at least when we figured out that there was no better way for her to find herself than for us, and her, to get lost. Ironically, I’d been standing at the end of the ramp for more than an hour before realizing that she’d been sitting within a few feet of me the whole time, trying to catch my attention. It was I who’d been oblivious to her whereabouts. So it had so often been. But here I was, her Eurycleia, finally recognizing her by her scarred heart.
And finally she rose along with her row, her Division of Social Studies slated last among all divisions, her last name slating her near the end of all names, and she made her long looping way across the amphitheater and toward the back of the stage, waiting for her name to be called out. At 1:24 p.m., it was: perfect cadence, perfect pronunciation. I was taking video with my tablet, which was registering a 7 or 8 on the Richter scale, until I couldn’t anymore because she was walking down the ramp toward me, and the rest was between blubber and blur.
So that long moment captured in that picture was between us a lot more than an embrace or a catharsis after waiting 90 minutes. It felt more like the universe beginning again from the dazzling center of Grinnell’s galaxy, and it was all her—her doing, her conquest, her Big Bang. I have never been a more grateful spectator, or a prouder father.