Underneath her white satin graduation gown, Virginia wore lavender. That morning, I had driven her through armies of dump trucks to the Navy Yard, where the building of luxury condos marches on and svelte restaurants sparkle beside gravelly lots.
Outside the D.C. United stadium, 18-year-olds emerged from blinking cars. Parents adjusted sashes and tugged at hems. Virginia slunk down into the passenger seat and said, “This is so humiliating.”
After her senior year spent entirely at home, we are being given a classic graduation ceremony. The first scheduled date was rained out, but today we would soon be gathering under an imperial sunny sky to celebrate a high school career, a lifetime in grade school, and a child ready to leave home.
Diana carried lavender hydrangeas. With only 3 seats for each family, Mark and Luke had to stay home. Jumbotrons emblazoned with “Wilson High School: 2021 Commencement” were flanked by the school’s mascot, roaring cartoon tigers. As we climbed one of the staircases in the 20,000-seat stadium, “Pomp and Circumstance” played over and over. We walked past families we knew and didn’t know, pods sprinkled among empty aisles for social distancing, and I felt a massive gratitude for the institutions and people that made this happen. Thank you for paying for this stadium. Thank you for knowing this was important.
One by one, each of the 412 students in Virginia’s graduating class were called to the stage to receive their high school diploma. Black and White, Asian and Latino, with names from cultures that span the world. All wearing white satin, all receiving the same blessing, a rite both affirming and breaking a tie.
After the photos and the lunching, the hugging and the squinting, I felt dazzled and disjointed, as if I had been holding an armful of stained glass. Yellow, blue, teal, magenta: sun shimmered through the colors, but there were pieces missing. The glass clanked, the edges bit. And I couldn’t see what design it was all making.
Grandiose ceremonies. I always want more than they can give. What is it that I seek —certainty, completion, wholeness?
No ritual could resolve the paradoxes of this year. How the pandemic broke us apart and brought us together. How some were shunted into homelessness and others into luxe vacation homes. Some were lost, some were found, and no one emerged unscathed.
Rising like a miracle after the city was leveled, this commencement was for me a celebration and a mourning of our return to society. Knowing that we must be different, and walking with trepidation and desire into the bold bright world again.