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.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.
Congratulations Pierre to you both and Sadie! Wish her a path of great success and happiness!
Rick Belhumeur says
Congratulations to Odysseus, Cheryl and yourself Pierre. As a parent, our proudest moments are experiencing/sharing our children’s accomplishments. Parenting lasts a lifetime!
Congrats Sadie! Guess it’s time, to just be…present! They leave us little choice. They are never ours. Only ours to steward. Lots of love and enjoy every precious moment with Luka!
Jon putney says
I started reading and thought wow Pierre has changed and actually has a heart but low and behold your true colors shine through. You turn a moment every parent relishes into your hatred of America and Americans. Who in their right mind would bring up ” have sex with an immigrant we’re having a rough day” during a graduation ceremony? Are you begging for white, rural girls to willing give it up so a immigrant doesn’t rape her because he’s having a rough day. Were the only honorary speakers immigrants that caused harm to our citizens and companies or were they the only ones you chose to honor. I believe you are worse for this country than Mr Trump. At least he loves America and its citizens, you hate it but realize you have it better here than your home country. You are the worst kind of immigrant.
Pierre Tristam says
Well, it was a matter of time before Rep. King’s vassals trolled up from Troy’s underground in their white-sheeted gowns to light up their inquisition’s faggots in these comments. Looking through the mist of spittle as I read, I gleaned from Jon’s seethes that sex is rape, immigrants are criminals, and the only Americans on the map are white and rural. But I am disappointed by the weakening convictions, the slackening bile. Not too long ago we could have depended on these prelates of hatred to remind us that homosexuals are pedophiles, Ay-rabs like me are terrorists, Muslims are all Ay-rabs, and liberals, like that filthy Kenyan Obama (are there any other kind of Kenyan?) are all Muslims. But I guess it’s a sign of tides turning, and good tidings, that the seethe is turning to wheeze, as if hatred was dying of emphysema. Being a disease (and so, Jon, I rather pity you than blame you, you merely need good help: I hope you have Obamacare), hatred has only that one way to go ultimately, making room for commencements that make our worlds and hearts, and of course our immigrant-craving boy and girl parts, drench and swell and pound with excitement.
Katie Semore says
Congratulations to your daughter and for mom and dad making the right choices along the way.
Congratulations to your “entire” family, Pierre. . . including “extended family”. . . it does actually “take a village”. Your lovely daughter has her foot on the path to her “personal” success. . . obviously one not defined by the almighty buck. These kinds of stories give me a tiny bit of faith that the future is not as bleak as it currently seems.
Julia Fenrich says
Congratulations to Sadie. She was an excellent student and hard worker, even in elementary school. I had no doubt she would do great things. How wonderful for her to choose teaching as a career. Best of luck!
John Kleckner says
Congratulations to Sadie. She is a wonderful person and I am so happy for her. I was very fortunate to have her as a student. I wish nothing but the best for her and your family.
Katie Semore says
@ Jon putney, is it your lack of education that makes you so ignorant or is it just who you are naturally? Mr. Tristam, I am quite sure Jon did not understand a word of your response to him. LOL Ignorance must truly be bliss, especially in his life. Sadly, he is not alone and they are allowed to multiply.
Having gone through this myself (twice, actually) I completely understand the emotions.
To putney…Trump loves America and Americans…? such a laughable lie! Trump only loves himself and the additional wealth he can generate while in office. Did you forget that as his in-law Kushner said Trump told him he thinks Republicans are stupid and will believe anything Trump will tell them, since his birther against Obama? Haha….Jeez I am still a Republican but not brainwashable like you putney.
Congratulations Pierre and Sadie. I can relate when both of my daughter graduated with honors from UF. A moment filled with tears and the feeling of how proud you are for their achievement.
Benjamin Bartlett says
What a wonderful, well-written (well, superlatively) article celebrating Sadie’s notable
accomplishment. So, hats off to Sadie, and her loving and supportive parents.
Pierre and Cheryl have given to us a young lady who will contribute greatly to our
society–this is a gift to all of us. Thank you!
I share their joy!
It’s a shame Mr. Putney’s dislike and diatribe against you (and everything different from him) overlooked your daughter’s committment to teach at Standing Rock. Of course those kids are dark-skinned like you “A-rabs” thus, maybe, the omission. I hope her idealism does not get ground off in that dismal place.
Re: Jon putney
Jon, ignorance and xenophobia are considered pre-existing conditions under the new Trumpcare program. Remember “you get what you paid for!” “Sad!” as our fearless leader would say.
CONGRATULATIONS SADIE!! (You too Pierre.)
John F Pollinger says
Beautifully written, right from the heart……. and your journalistic side managed to capture the momentous occasion in perfect harmony. As for the negative comment, I guess I should no longer be surprised, but sadly I am………
Traveling Rep says
Congrats Pierre! Well written too. Even at my eldest’s Pre-K graduation, I felt many of the same emotions. Although, less years endured thus far. I am sure when it comes to her college graduation, the intensity will have dramatically increase.
I think my wife would agree with the comedian. I would too, as long as the immigrant is legal!
“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. Advice? This is good advice? Best line? What? I call it poor journalism. Poor choice of words and at the wrong place. And, where is this Grinnell College. Has anybody heard of it? In the middle of corn fields? Oh, it is a private liberal arts college in Iowa. Liberal Arts is not even a real degree!
@ Jon putney you are proof positive that trump has taken the lid off the septic tank of humanity!
Touche’ Pierre, touche’…
@ Pierre Tristam and his loved ones
Congratulations and best wishes.
@ Jon putney
Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
– Daniel 5:27 KJV
This is a wonderful story Pierre. Since our 12 yr history we’ve gotten to know you’ll as family. We’re so proud of Sadie and her accomplishments. Congratulations! We too had growing pains with Riva. Her violin play and IB studies and our expectations for them to excel was at times extreme with anticipation and expectations. They sometimes have a way of making us know that they are quite capable of accomplishing great things. Your story filled me with joy especially in knowing what a wonderful woman Sadie has become
Best wishes to you all.
Ya Mamma says
Any young girl who want to go teach on a Rez, has my respect, even though, if you understood the lack of everything we have,living at Pine Ridge, she went in blind, but still with my respect. Native Americans have it so rough, you would be hard pressed to believe theyre actually IN America. Your Daughter rocks & will continue to- Heres to praying, she is never a cog in an industrial commercial amerikan wheel. Good Job Dad~!
Dave Sullivan says
Congratulations to the Tristam family.
Well written and a heartwarming article. But I must say that you are only partway there. You must get used to your daughter to be less and less a part of your life as she begins her new life, far from home with a new environment and friends but her love for you and her family will never cease.
Congratulations to Sadie, Cheryl and Pierre.
Jon Putney–are you so moronic that you missed the quotes? They look like this: ” and they normally mark a statement uttered by someone else. Sort of like the ones below: (note again, I am using quotes, to suggest they are uttered by someone other than Pierre).
“when you’re a star, they let you do it,”
“I did try and fuck her. She was married,”
“I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married,” “Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.”
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” “You can do anything.” “Grab them by the pussy”. “You can do anything.”
This dude really likes Americans. Jeez.
So happy for you all – with congratulations to Sadie – and high hopes for Luka…
Reservation teaching – there’s a special spot reserved for people who do that in the annals of humanity and higher powers..
I sensed Sadie was special when she first checked my groceries through at the Publix cash register years and years ago. She keeps proving it.
Our community (for the most part ) shares your joy !!!
Congratulations. I feel your parental pride and love for your daughter in your article. That is truly a beautiful thing. Unfortunately your liberal leanings had to be be included. You are an excellent writer. Though our leanings are opposite I do enjoy your writing and seeing what is going through the liberal mind. Can’t you just keep something like the graduation of your daughter non political?
“Love is the chain whereby to bind a child to its parents”