I went to the kind of high school that had its own Coat of Arms–you know, a faux-medieval crest and a Latin motto. It was stitched onto ties and blazers, affixed to notebooks, pencils, coffee mugs, pint glasses, beach towels, baseball caps and pretty much any other crap the School thought they sell to parents and alumni. There wasn’t much to the crest part–no windmills or boars or disembodied knight’s heads—but the Latin motto, though, was quite the statement. On the Threshold of an Excellent Life. It was just grandiose enough to inspire the writing of tuition checks, but vague enough that no one would point fingers if, say, Junior got booted out of Duke and ended up a bartender living indefinitely in his parents’ Wrightsville Beach vacation rental
I always liked the way it sounded. On the threshold of an excellent life! All teenagers want to believe they are bound for great and terrible things. And like most teenagers who’d survived adolescence on a steady diet of (often silly) quest novels, I liked the idea that I might have an uncommon destiny, clearly recognized by the admissions office at my high school. And so I endured three years of preposterous dress code, nine hour school days, Saturday classes, Draconian rules, required athletics and the silly institutionalized Anglophilia of boarding school, even a boarding school in Appalachia.
When commencement rolled around, the threshold would at last be crossed. Make no mistake: graduation was a formal affair. No simple caps and gowns would. Our dress code was matrimonial. The boys would wear dark suits and girls white dresses and carry long stemmed bouquets of roses. We processed in a column, two by two, under the archway of the classroom building, past the chapel, alongside a quintet of hired horns playing “Trumpet Voluntary,” and through the gathered audience to our folding chairs in the grass. I remember having a lot of unanswered questions about the white dresses. White was unflattering and impractical and dangerous for those of us inclined toward ink spots, coffee spills and grass stains. “Because it’s traditional,” one of the mothers had said—but I didn’t know of any tradition mandating that women look virginal in order to receive a diploma. “Maybe Mr. (Headmaster) is planning on offering one of us up as a virgin sacrifice,” one of my classmates said. We rolled our eyes, like anyone is actually lame enough to still be a virgin and tittered. Including me, even though I was, in fact, a big fat virgin in silk crepe and chiffon and a literal crown of flowers. If anyone was going to be served up as an entrée to some eldritch horror in order to consecrate my classmates’ forthcoming excellent lives, it was going to be me.
I would be pre-cooked, at least. It was a hot June morning, clear and bright. The trees around the lawn provided ambient sun dappling, but little practical shade and it was a long program, heavy on pomp and barely-disguised appeals for donations to the annual fund. The class speaker—a disappointed Olympic hopeful—spoke endlessly about volunteering and (maybe) Buddhism. Our class poet snarled out a semi-metered jeremiad about hate–hate is the fire that feeds you. His passion was obvious, though his point mostly lost on classmates that only really hated dress code and the school itself, which we could be done with, Praise Jesus and Glory Hallelujah, if our Henry Rollins-loving bard would kindly step on it.
I received my diploma in a puffy, embossed, faux leather folder that I would find useful as both a mousepad and a trivet over the course of my college years. Then the brass fired up the shaker hymn from “Appalachian Spring” and it was over.
Pictures happened, official and unofficial. The Dean of Students circulated through the crowd reminding recent graduates that though the school could not technically take our diplomas away for violating the handbook, ours was a non-smoking campus and North Carolina alcohol laws were still in effect, so I better not see a flask, people.
My alcoholic fabulist grandfather made a rare appearance. He intoned some pompous business about family legacy and posterity at the head of the lunch buffet line and was about to embark on some serious lily-gilding when he discovered that one of my best friends was the granddaughter of a woman in Mississippi he’d been engaged to during World War II. “She was an extraordinary woman. A great love of my early life. Tragically, she returned the ring.” The rest of the table seemed largely unmoved by this information. Mississippi is a small state. I mean, isn’t everyone down there related? I, however, was bowled over. “We could have been the same person!” I said to my friend. She looked at me with what might have been a trace of horror. She was ranking scholar of the school, headed to Brown by way of a post graduation jaunt to Europe. Her future looked bright. I was a chronic underachiever headed to the first of what would end up being the three disappointing colleges I could afford by way of Lollapalooza, part time jobs and whatever punk rock bands were desperate enough to play early 90s-era downtown Asheville. My future was looking for a silver lining.
The thing about graduation night at boarding school is that there are no parties, no cookouts, no extended farewells, People pack up and leave. It just ends. Of those I was closest to, I stayed in touch with a few. Some friends just drift away. Sometimes things just get weird. You stay friends with people you never knew you were friends with to begin with. You lose track of people you loved. Such is the way of things past the threshold.
I ended up spending graduation night with my bound-for-Brown friend, because sometime during the pomp and circumstance and white dresses, she’d learned that another of our childhood friends, one that hadn’t gone to our high school, had passed away. His death hadn’t been entirely unexpected—he suffered from a congenital heart disease—but it was nonetheless tragic, made even more so by the fact that he’d been a genuinely kind, honestly exceptional sort of person. My friend had been closer to him than I was. She was devastated. And so I spent my graduation night trying figure out what to say that didn’t sound awkward or inappropriate or trite. I knew I couldn’t talk about our future, the excellent life we’d purportedly stepped into. That was a place without disappointment, without grief, without failure, without regret. That was a place where our success was all but guaranteed and all our dreams would come true. In those waning moments of graduation day, I reallly didn’t want to consider limitations. I didn’t want to contemplate mortality or let myself feel loss. I was eighteen. I selfishly wanted to bask in that breathless, infinite possibility my own what ifs. I wanted to envision all the glories of my excellent destiny. I wanted to believe in it. But I couldn’t. And I didn’t. So I sat smoking cigarettes on a damp, stone wall of a mountain overlook, searching the night sky in vain for something to say that would comfort my friend. Something full of grace and wisdom and compassion. Something that acknowledged just how rarely life is excellent. Something that didn’t sound like so much bullshit.