With five kids, three of whom have already graduated from high school, I know the drill – the ceremony always takes place on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in our community college’s field house and the students need to pick up their tickets weeks in advance.
When it was son #4’s turn to do just that a little while back, I reminded him how many he needed to request. Later that same day, he dutifully placed them in my eager hands.
This, in turn, triggered a flurry of activity on my end: relay the logistics to the relatives, plan the party, and send out invitations. Easy-peasy. I had done it so many times before, I could do the whole routine with my eyes closed.
But I didn’t, because this year was extra special.
This graduate is extra special.
As you may recall, my son #4 has Asperger’s Syndrome.
Since starting in our school district’s outstanding special needs preschool when he just three years old, completely non-verbal, and had to be tethered to his seat to keep him from running around the classroom upending everything in sight, he has leapt over ever bar anyone ever tried to place in front of him.
By first grade, he was in regular classrooms and by high school, he was a straight-A student, making academic all-conference as a member of the boys’ cross-country team.
And, yes, in the fall, he will be going to college.
I couldn’t be prouder.
Just to be clear, my son did not accomplish all of this alone. Along the way, he has had a number of patient and caring aides, teachers and support staff guiding and encouraging him, letting him vent when he was frustrated and his arsenal of coping mechanisms failed him.
They, too, are proud of him. And, like me and the rest of his family, we couldn’t wait for him to cross that stage, totally rocking that black cap and gown, and smile for the cameras, diploma in hand.
Just days after securing the graduation ceremony tickets to our refrigerator with a magnetized clip, though, I noticed my son did not seem anywhere near as thrilled as I was. Quite the opposite in fact. His smile was gone. In fact, I hadn’t seen it since he handed me the tickets.
Instead, as he usually does when he’s anxious, he had grown quiet, was frequently spotted twirling the curls just above his forehead with his index finger, and was avoiding eye contact at every turn.
When I asked if anything was wrong, he blurted, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to do it.”
“Do what?” I asked, although I suspected I already knew the answer. Struggling to keep a smile on my face lest I upset him further, I watched as he wrestled with what he was about to say.
“Graduation. I just don’t want to do it.” Casting a quick worried glance at me, he rushed to take back what he just said. “I mean, if you want me to, I will, but I’ll just be doing it for you.”
My heart broke for him. After all this time, how could I possibly think he’d be comfortable sitting still amongst hundreds of other graduates, waiting patiently for his name to be called, only to have a myriad of flashes go off as he received what in his mind was just a piece of paper?
Before I could reply, he grumbled, “And I just can’t stand that music they play. Over and over.”
Sheer torture. I could see it in his face.
Still, having a child skip the graduation ceremony was a new one for me. I wondered if the school would even allow such a thing.
I shrugged. “It’s OK with me. Just let me check with your counselor to make sure the school is cool with it.”
And, of course, they were.
“Can we still throw you a party?” I asked through a tight grin, now fully aware that I may want that more than he does.
At this he perked up. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”
And he was smiling again. The best sight ever.