Some Thoughts on My Daughter’s High School Graduation: Go Forth Unafraid.

Yesterday, my daughter graduated from high school. It was a bittersweet afternoon.

Happy, because it’s satisfying to think of the work that she’s done, sweet because it’s great to see the friends she’s made, and exciting to see her move forward. (Like that old joke, “That’s why they call it a Commencement.”)

Sad, because this ceremony marks an end. This time in her life, and in my life too, has come to a close. I always feel a sense of loss when things come to their end (even things I want to end).

During the ceremony, the school crest was projected on a giant screen above the graduates’ heads, and I got to thinking about the school motto.

I love maxims, proverbs, manifestos, mantras, teaching stories — anything that crams a big idea into a small space — and I’ve always been fascinated by school mottoes.

The motto of my high school was “Freedom with responsibility.” We talked about it often in school, and I still think of it, to this day. It’s a great motto for anyone, it’s a great motto for the United States, it’s thought-provoking and transcendent.

My daughter’s school takes a different angle on the school motto — it’s  “Go forth unafraid.”

As with my high school, the school talks about this motto often. Teachers lecture about  it, kids joke about it, it’s prominently displayed throughout the school.  It’s part of the school song: “We go forth unafraid/Strong with love and strong with learning…” It’s deeply embedded in the school culture.

For instance, the seniors have a tradition of the end-of-year “Count Down” celebration: as kids from younger grades look on admiringly, the seniors gather in the Senior Lounge with a big digital clock, and count down together to their final 3:15 p.m. dismissal time. I watched a video, and saw that as the last seconds slipped by, the seniors broke into the school song, and as 3:15 started to flash, they were all singing its last line at the top of their lungs: “Here we have learned to go forth unafraid.”

I’ve always loved this motto, and it never struck me more forcefully than during the graduation ceremony.

It prompted me to recall my daughter’s very first day of pre-school. As I stood in the corridor  with the other parents, all of us struggling to say good-bye to our children, the head of the school said to me gently, “This is the first of many times that you will say good-bye to your child.”

And as hard as it was to let my three-year-old daughter walk through that brightly decorated door, I was so happy when she marched ahead, interested and eager, to explore her new classroom.

And as I sat in the audience and watched all the seniors receive their diplomas, I thought, “As hard as it is to see this time come to an end, I’m happy, too, and what I want most for my daughter and all these kids is for them to go forth unafraid, strong with love and strong with learning.”

And as I sat in the audience, and searched for my daughter’s mortarboarded head among the crowd onstage, I recalled that three-year-old girl going to school for the very first time — and remembered something else from those days.

Back then, she and I rode the bus to school, and I wrote a little video story about that bus ride, called “The Years Are Short.” Of everything I’ve ever written, this one-minute video has resonated most with people, and its truth, for me, has never struck me more forcefully. In my daughter’s childhood, some days seemed interminable, but the years have passed in a flash.

That three-year-old pre-schooler has become an eighteen-year-old high school graduate.

Now what?

Go forth unafraid.

  • excursivey

    Delightful! Congratulations to Eliza!! (And to you!)
    My personal mantra is “Breathe, move forward” to remind ME to go forth unafraid!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! Terrific!

  • Liz

    Congrats to Eliza, and to you and Jamie for raising such a strong woman!

    I went to catholic school, and our motto was Caritas Vincit Omnia, which is Latin for love conquers all. It’s an odd school motto (it’s meant to mean God’s love), but I’ve always really liked the saying, especially in these trying times.

  • Carol McPherson

    So beautifully written! I, too, feel a keen sense of loss when things are coming to an end. Just a warning… her first year of college will go by satisfying slowly to you, but after that, those next three years will fly by! In what seems like a wink of an eye, you will be blogging about your bittersweet emotions as she’s graduating from college. I look forward to reading it here. All the best to Eliza as she starts her new life.

  • Katherine Jane King

    I have tears in my eyes reading your wonderful piece and reflecting at age 69 of
    not only my children’s beginnings/completions but also my grandchildren’s… one
    graduating from preschool and another from high school.
    Today I am thankful for your beautiful writing and especially your
    gift of insight.
    Thank you.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much – great to hear that it struck a chord with you.

  • Regina Pirruccello

    Oh my goodness, how I love the school you describe. As a life-long educator, I know the value of placing enduring words for life into the minds of our children. The Senior Countdown ritual is so sweet. To face the end, and the future, singing together! Beautiful! Congratulations to Eliza. Thank you for the delightful story and insight.

  • lisa Pinkerton Rintoul

    Ahh…Gretchen , I joined you this week with the same bittersweet milestone for my Caroline. “Freedom with responsibility” was my motto in our house for all 18 years that I had her. I hope that it will serve her well.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great to see that you read this post! How fun.

      A good example that graduation doesn’t mark a final farewell, even if it seems to.

  • Natalie

    My school motto was “Truth, Unity, Concord”. We sang that every assembly but I doubt many people in the school knew what “concord” meant. I certainly didn’t (I do now: agreement, harmony). Confusingly, Concord was the name of a nearby suburb. I don’t recall the motto being discussed by teachers ever, but it was a long time ago.

  • Leslie Honcoop

    Lovely thoughts! And what a motto!
    I can testify that the years ahead are no disappointment. It is a continuing joy to see our children become the people they were meant to be.

  • Rachel

    Sob! Lovely…and good advice.

  • Irene S

    I never had children. However, as grandma to my stepson’s 2 boys, I was blessed to have a close relationship with them. They are 20 and 17 now, and we see each other less. Pride in their growing independence runs parallel to missing them terribly. Your words certainly apply to them, and to all children as they mature into adulthood. But they apply to moms and dads and grandparents, as well. We, too, are embarkinking on a new phase of life. And, we too, go forth, unafraid.