Even after almost three decades, the memory is vivid. I ran into the art building to find Mr. Eubank, my sister in tow, my family waiting to make the long drive back home. After I spotted him, I burst out in tears. He was a massive man, with a wide girth and a handlebar mustache. He wrapped me in a bear hug and said, “Shhh. It’s okay. You can come back and visit.” Contained in the hug I gave back was my unspoken gratitude for two years of guidance, humor, understanding, support, and instruction, which led to a college diploma, a first for my family. I wanted Mr. Eubank to be the last person I saw as I was leaving the campus of Chowan College, the place that changed the trajectory of my life.
The word “commencement” conjures up visions of smiling graduates and “Pomp and Circumstance.” These occasions can be bittersweet, as students transition from an environment where they’ve been successful to the next phase of life, which is uncharted and less predictable. Commencement is the start of something, which gets lost in the hugs and tears, the goodbyes, and the genuine intentions of people who are connected through the goal of education to keep in touch.
As a sentimental fool, I love graduations. There’s so much hope, pride, and a sense of accomplishment on the part of everyone connected to the graduate. For at least that moment, that afternoon, in those snapshots, everything is perfect. I have been lucky enough to feel that on several occasions. First was my graduation from Northwest High School, tucked into the corner of Warrensville, North Carolina. We read a lot about teacher salaries, how we’re near the bottom in pay, and all the bickering that goes on in the General Assembly, but my high school teachers gave no indication that they were not in the best profession imaginable. They gave it 110% every day. It’s been decades since I’ve seen most of them, but their words still guide me today.
Attitude makes a difference and sometimes ignorance really is bliss. It wasn’t until a visit back to my high school between my freshman and sophomore years in college that I stumbled upon the fact through a casual conversation that not all of my teachers believed in my potential. One, who shall remain nameless, vocalized his wonder that I made it through my first year. “We all thought you’d be home before Thanksgiving,” he said matter-of-factly. While this was a little hurtful, it was somewhat realistic. Sometimes even the best students fail when they leave the confines of the nest.
By that time, I had gotten a taste of the outside world and there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. That comment was a gnawing reminder that I had to keep propelling myself forward. If for no other reason, it was to reward the teachers who didn’t feel that way about my prospects for success. For the record, not all my teachers were naysayers and my family was a supportive group of cheerleaders. They didn’t understand me a lot of the time, but they still encouraged me and celebrated my successes.
Now that I’m an educator, I see the same struggles in many of my students that I encountered. The first generation college student. The student working two part time jobs and taking a full course load. The student who is expected to fail. These are the students whose walk across the stage to accept their diploma is especially rewarding. Sweet success; hold the bitter, please.