True life is lived when tiny changes occur.
– Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist and short story writer
Prior to Jacob’s 8th grade promotion ceremony last night, all week I had been adrift in reminiscing. I remembered my own 8th grade graduation as I rejoiced and also felt bittersweet about his minor rite of passage, with the swift feet of time luring him away from me. I couldn’t find any photos of my graduation, but I distinctly remembered details so vivid it startled me. My Auntie Leonora, my mom’s sister-in-law, sewed my maxi dress of tiny blue flowers against a cream background, with the bodice trimmed with lace and petite luminous blue buttons. June 8, 1976. As we were getting ready for the event after dinner, my mother made her way to the bathroom with a fish bone stuck in her throat. I ran down the hallway, panicked that she was choking to death. She was fine after coughing up the bone, but I realized at that moment how much she meant to me – despite our cultural and generational differences at the time. My mother meted out tough love but only because she wanted me to work hard and succeed.Mr. Vangsness, our choral teacher, conducted us as we sang Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” a popular 1975 song, and a dog understandably howled in the background. Nobody snickered or laughed out loud, but I was embarrassed nonetheless. [Don’t ask why an elementary school choir would sing a song about a heartbroken man at an 8th grade graduation.]
Spurred by my memories, I took to the attic and dug into the big plastic tub that holds my journals and mementos of my life up to college. I’ve sifted through this tub before to flip through my journals and other writings, but I haven’t gone through the letters, my certificates of perfect attendance and scholarship, report cards, school reports, my overwrought prose from my English assignments in years. I was astonished to find that I still have my 8th graduation program, which is in pristine condition.
Terra Bella, my hometown and home to my K-8 elementary school, wasn’t big enough to warrant having a high school. There were two high schools in the next town over, Porterville, and where you lived relative to the train tracks determined which school you attended. Mostly everyone attended Porterville High School because a greater percentage of the town’s population lived on one side of the tracks. I chose to follow my two sisters, who were going to the newer high school. But that meant I would be separated from all my friends. It meant I would be a lone wolf until I made new friends. Another girl from my school ended up going, but we weren’t close and didn’t hang out in elementary school. I sheepishly asked my middle sister, a junior, if I could hang out with her. She begrudgingly agreed, though I had to walk behind her and her group of friends, no doubt because she had been telling people since she got to high school that she was an only child.
I was scared of high school, though I had outgrown being at the same rural school for nine years and being with the same kids for almost a decade. At the same time, I was curious and excited. I had the rare opportunity early in life to reinvent myself in a new environment. Nobody knew me. There’s a certain freedom in anonymity, in not being encumbered by complicated friendships and loyalties. I was ready to bust out of my little hometown. I was ready for a bigger school, a variety of classes – I had a thirst for pure knowledge and learning – new friends, and new experiences and adventures. The proverbial bigger pond.
Graduating from my elementary school, really, was the beginning of the journey for me. With each step, graduating from Monache High School, Porterville Junior College, UC Davis, and Syracuse University, along with my two years as a Jesuit Volunteer in Alaska and San Francisco, the world continued to grow bigger and bigger. As I, as an 8th grader, walked across the concrete stage to accept my diploma in front of the grassy area filled with families of immigrant workers and farmers on a warm June evening, my excitement was palpable. Life was opening up.
And so it will for Jacob. Happy 8th grade promotion. Tolstoy nailed it: we experience tiny changes, necessary changes, on the way to a true life.