Why Graduations Are Such Emotional Moments


For the first sixteen years of my life, my family lived on the campus of a residential school, where my father served as superintendent and my mother taught high school English. This meant that our lives were ruled by the school calendar.

I still remember the excitement every August when I would go with my mother to her classroom to put up the first bulletin board of the year welcoming students back to school, how the floors were freshly mopped and the desks freshly shined, and everything seemed imbued with promise.

Graduations have always been emotional for me. (Katie Collins)

I would sit on my back porch with my dog and watch the teachers arrive for the first days of meetings before the students returned. This meant that our campus home was waking up again for the start of a new year bright with possibilities, and the comfort of the familiar school routine.

My father started wearing coats and ties again, my mother pulled out her pantyhose and skirts and sensible shoes, and as a family we waited for the big bus to pull onto campus bringing students from all parts of the state back for another year.

The school year passed with all its attendant milestone events

The school years passed as they do, full of Halloween parties and holiday pageants and school plays. And then it was June, time for the seniors to graduate. My mother was also in charge of the graduation exercises, and as a little girl I would accompany her to the gym on warm spring nights and lie on the floor watching her make sure the ceremony went off without a hitch.  

The first chords of Pomp and Circumstance would sound from the ancient piano in the corner of the gym, and the graduating seniors would embark on this most important walk toward their futures.  

As a child, the seniors seemed like giants to me – so grown up and worldly — and I remember crying at graduation each year without even really knowing why I was crying. Not only did graduation mean another summer of wandering the campus and of running through empty dusty hallways in bright afternoon sunshine, it meant change.  

Graduations were always emotional for me

It meant the march of the years steadily onward and that as much as I wanted to freeze time, nothing could ever stay as it was.  Even before I had the words to express what I was feeling, I knew that graduations come with a whole suitcase of mixed emotions.

My own small-town high school graduation took place on the hottest night of the year. Sweat trickled down my back under my graduation gown, my cap pinned awkwardly to my really bad 1980s haircut. I felt joy to the point of near delirium at finally escaping the home town where I never fit in, but also fear and trepidation at the terrifying journey to college that was facing me when the ceremonies of high school had ended. I was a child of teachers and a child of school.

I cherished the comfort of quarterly report cards and class schedules. I knew how to act at school. I knew who I was at school. I didn’t know how to be or who to be outside of school. Of course, college opened many doors for me and brought me tremendous growth and the best friends of my life, but even so, four years later, as I sat under a blazing sun in the last row at my college graduation ceremony (cursed with a maiden name that fell at the end of the alphabet), I felt the same combination of unease and loss that I knew signified both an ending and a beginning. 

Graduation can feel very anti-climactic

Graduations are strange animals. For part of the day the graduates take center stage, gowns glittering with honor cords, stoles, medals or pins, caps adorned with personal messages. By the end of the day the trappings are discarded, the gowns returned or crumpled in closets, and the graduate’s achievements yesterdays’ news.

For college students, the morning pomp and circumstance is often followed by a slightly kinder version of “now get out,” as campus apartments, neighborhood leases, and dorm rooms are hastily vacated.  Endings and beginnings, ceremony and chaos, elation and sadness, achievement and loss. These are the stuff graduations are made of. 

This year my daughter graduated

Even now in my mid-fifties, I’ve never really lost that tie to the rhythm of the school year and the tug at my heart brought about by every graduation season. This year was even more poignant as I watched my daughter, my only child, graduate from college on the same football field where I received my own diploma 33 years earlier.

Sitting on the metal bleachers with the other parents, reapplying sunscreen under the cloudless sky, and anxiously waiting to spy my girl in the sea of black gowns entering the stadium, I wanted to stop time. I wasn’t ready for these perfect years to end. I wasn’t ready to be let loose without any connection to a school year calendar. And time seemed to shift and for a moment I was back in the hot gymnasium of my father’s school, trying not to cry, and knowing that by the end of the day everything would be different.  

This year I watched my own daughter graduate from the college where I graduated from 33 years earlier. (Katie Collins)

Then the sounds of Pomp and Circumstance filled the stadium and they were on their way. Beaming, waving graduates with sunglasses and heels too high for the turf of the field, with messy hair and ties askew. Walking toward whatever came next with an excitement and confidence that – real or pretend- was contagious.  And I smiled, because while nothing can stay the same, because as much as we want to stop time and cling to the past, it is in the messiness of change where life really happens.

Congratulations, graduates, and safe travels.  

More Great Reading:

My Son’s High School Graduation Is a Huge Deal; He Almost Didn’t Make It



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