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.
Go forth unafraid.