Each June, the same sweet scene plays out in nursery schools across the country.
To the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” or something more festive, little girls and boys find their spots in dollhouse chairs at the front of their classroom. The audience beams as the children perform a repertoire of songs from the school year and the teacher speaks about the class’ mastery of shapes and scissor skills. The program concludes with the awarding of diplomas, after which the children smile for pictures and doff their mortarboards, a move they’ve rehearsed for weeks.
It’s the kind of ceremony designed to pull parental heartstrings. Though our knees stiffen in the same tiny chairs occupied by our offspring, we do not complain, for we are enjoying the performance too much to notice. We may even cry a few tears, a mix of happy emotion and awe at the hasty passage of time. After all, just yesterday these preschoolers still slept in a crib.
I remember the first graduation I attended for my eldest when he moved up from the two-year-old class to the two-and-a-half-year class at his preschool, a slight progression which nonetheless merited paper caps with tassels and a collation buffet of juice and cupcakes. Though part of me wanted to believe the whole enterprise was silly, the teacher snagged me with an adorable invitation I could not refuse. I dressed my son in a fancy outfit, a button-down shirt with shorts and suspenders. In my memory, he appears preciously grown up, though in the photos he looks more like an extra in The Sound of Music.
That event and the preschool graduations that followed were schmaltzy, but you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in attendance at any of them who didn’t love every minute. What I know now, which I did not grasp then, was the fact that those graduations were far more than the photo-op floorshows they appeared to be. They had a deeper layer of meaning humming beneath the surface, one I didn’t recognize until many years later, when my eldest son’s high school graduation date stared at me from the calendar.
Preschool graduations are practice runs for all the ones that come after, not for the children, but for the mommies and daddies and grandparents and guardians in the room. They glimmer like crystal balls, giving us a glimpse into a future when the pomp and circumstances will be big and real, testing our parental mettle for the day when we have to let our children move on, not into the next classroom, but out the front door and into the world.
At the graduation this coming Sunday, I expect to be a sobbing mess, which is why I’m writing this now. But please don’t mistake my emotions for sorrow. I know it’s all a blessing. Moments like this make it easier to forget the bumps we hit along the way, the challenges we presently face, and the worries about future unknowns. As my son, who towers a full head above me, embarks on the next leg of his journey, we as his parents step into uncharted waters, too. I pray that we will all have the wherewithal to steady our ships.
Our children may be ours, but they never belong to us. We must love them and raise them to belong to themselves, and when the time comes, we must let them go, our eyes never losing sight of them.