I walked into the empty gym at Harlem High. Not the same gym from which I graduated. Not the same school, but one rebuilt after a fire 25 years ago. The “Little Gym” and band room are the only remaining portions of the old structure. Bleachers flanked both sides of the gym floor. A balloon-lined pathway separated rows of chairs. At center back, a huge circular entrance arch, festooned for celebration. To the right, the band was practicing in the bleachers. Chairs on risers for the graduating Senior Class angled right front. To the left, a podium, chairs for administrators, teachers, speakers. In back, The Honor Drum.
The band is newly formed. I listen, impressed, proud how far they’ve progressed. Shook conductor’s hand. They should be proud. Several students even play two instruments. I talked with some parents. Harlem shows pride in what it’s built.
Back out in the hallway. Some impressions. Families, grads, milling. Nervous with anticipation, fear, excitement. Hugs. Tears. Cameras flash.
Parents, friends, neighbors file into gym. Find chairs. Fill bleachers. Band plays without cease. Buzz of celebratory talk fills the air. Sounds of welcome rain pound the roof. Last-minute stragglers enter. Peer over shoulder at clock. Quiet settles. Heightened anticipation.
Band swings into the Processional March. Pomp and Circumstance. One by one, step, step, step, grads enter. Pause beneath arch for photos. Beautiful young men and women. Sons and daughters. No longer children. Unashamed tears run down the face of a father seated before me. Proud of son. Look around. All eyes misty. Smiles. Grads with bashful grins. Confident. Hesitant. Soup of emotions.
The Ceremony begins. Rite of Passage. The Welcome. Greetings. Salutatory and valedictory addresses. Funny. Intelligent. Grown up.
Commencement address, by Harlem Grad, Rick Haluszka, Class of ’08. Humility and Purpose. Life will repeat those words. Humility and Purpose. Life, the continuing education.
During the Honor Song, memories of my own graduation intrude. May 23, 50 years ago. Class of ’63, Harlem High, the “Little Gym.” I remember the speakers. Not the words. Remember classmates I haven’t seen in all these years. I think of classmates I see nearly every year. New-found friends built on an old foundation of shared school years. Wish they were here with me to share these moments. We were less sophisticated. Walked with the same pride. Same Rite of Passage.
Scholarships and awards given. Diplomas presented. Mortarboards flung into the air! Hugs. Kisses. Guys’ gentle punches. Enfolded in family. More photos. Class of ’13. Graduated.
Today a Senior Class. A unit. Together these 12 years. They think they will be together forever. Tomorrow scattered to winds of individual choice. Some leave Harlem. Some stay. Some reunite in later years. Friendships endure. Shared school experiences, a bond which cannot be broken.
The depth of my feelings surprises me. I see every person, class after class, through the years, here in this gym, this day — vital to their school — vital to their community — vital to one another. The love. The bonds. The ties. The legacy of small town, small school. The Gift Harlem gives each grad — the visceral sense that every person is important. Each one carries this Gift into his and her world. Precious foundation. Strength. Humility. Purpose.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little different. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)