Each of my three children has a very different graduation story. My middle child, Chase, had the most traditional time of it, having seamlessly transitioned from British A-Levels in China, to a regular American high school for eleventh and twelfth grades. For his grand high school finale, he marched across the stage of the Jon M. Huntsman Center with both pomp and circumstance, his red robe blingy and jingling with cords and medals representing all kinds of long hours and A.P. courses. Thereafter he enjoyed a teppanyaki dinner with the family, followed by Bountiful High’s customary all-night blowout bash for the graduating class. In the photos he’s standing with his arm around me, a very proud mom who was secretly ashamed that my head was still a little baldy from chemo, as though reality had left a greasy smudge on the big day.
My oldest, Abby, also wore a red robe, but she graduated from Dulwich College high school in Suzhou, China, the only western student in her school. Every year the students took a whole class devoted entirely to researching and applying to universities. At commencement, as each member of her graduating class slowly crossed the stage, the university they would attend in the fall was projected larger than life on the wall behind them. In China, once you attend any international school for any amount of time, even if it is within China, you are no longer welcome in the Chinese educational system. Consequently, every one of Abby’s classmates was scattering across the world.
Dulwich was brilliant at launching their students into universities, but somehow the idea of a school dance had rather slipped their minds. In their defense, they did cater to Chinese students whose only exposure to the concept of “prom” was probably the occasional cheesy teen American movie, so it wasn’t much of a priority. But Abby had grown up with one foot in China and the other in America, so she’d gotten rather attached to the idea.
“We need a graduation prom,” she told the administration.
“Good idea, you do it,” they said.
So, she did.
When she walked across that stage, the girl who spearheaded the graduation prom was very different than the shy Utah girl who entered the school on the first day. In the photos I’m smiling with Abby, so proud of her. A tempest was brewing around the edges, but I thought I could keep it a secret. I still possessed all my hair, but I had discovered the lump, and various other bits of unfortunate information. I didn’t yet know I had cancer, but reality’s greasy stain was hovering just outside the view of the camera lens.
In the end I couldn’t keep my secrets, and the winds threatening out of view in Abby’s graduation photos eventually swept us all into hurricane force gales. This year my youngest, Porter, will graduate having weathered far greater storms than a pandemic. In high school he found his saving grace in music and theater, and when school was abruptly closed in March, his troupe was two days from performing Anne Frank, of all things. He was already cast in the spring musical, Secret Garden, and had long been rehearsing the music.
On March 12th the virus was suddenly dominating the news, and Porter came home complaining that the school could be on fire and they still wouldn’t cancel. It was hope masquerading as frustration. That afternoon when Porter was eating with his friends, he had no idea it was the final school lunch he would ever eat, or that the productions of Anne Frank and Secret Garden would evaporate, or that his choir trip to San Diego would suddenly vanish. March 12th had worn a brilliantly convincing costume called Ordinary Thursday that had entirely taken him in, partly because he wanted it to. For all the moaning and complaining and procrastination, it turns out that in their secret hearts, many kids like school. That countdown to summer is really more of a call for a defined break, rather than a desire for a total breakdown.
Porter will not walk across the stage at the Jon M. Huntsman Center like Chase, or attend a senior prom like Abby. He won’t sing “Lily’s Eyes” in the school play, or enjoy a big all-night bash with his friends. The day we picked up his red cap and gown, he was photographed and filmed for a virtual graduation that will be streamed on YouTube, and his yearbook will be picked up in a drive-thru. It’s all very sanitary and socially distant as we all feel our way through the brave “New Now” everyone keeps talking about. Porter and I got a photo together, he in his red graduation robe, and me with most of my hair, enough to cover all the baldy spots, but thinner than it used to be, the greasy smudge a little lighter, but impossible to fully erase.
I’m confused by the term “New Now.” It seems to imply that there was an “Old Now,” a time when everything was normal and we knew what to expect, but did we? I have three children with less than five years from oldest to youngest, same family, same rabidly education-minded mother, yet their graduation stories could not be more different, and a good look at the photographs hints at the witch’s brew bubbling underneath.
It could be argued that Chase had what might be called an “Old Now” graduation with all the bells and whistles, and I am happy that he did. But if he ever decides to write his autobiography, how prominently will that moment figure in the annals of his life? I suspect he would include a year and location to tick off the historical record boxes, but the details will likely have been long eclipsed by career achievements, marriage and children, and all the other fruits of decades of living. If Abby writes her story, she may include a few more lines about her graduation because she did it with her feet on two different sides of the world. But what about Porter and his virtual graduation, streamed on the internet, four years of gathering momentum only to breathe out in a final whimpering cough. I think he will have the most to say.
I believe that Porter’s life will be just as full and rich as either of his siblings, so his autobiography likely would not begin and end with his high school glory days. But he could write a chapter about donning his graduation gown and standing atop one of history’s hinges, the terrifying moment when the arrogance of modern man locked horns with a microscopic speck of RNA, and got gored through the heart.
As a child I listened to the story of Pandora’s Box with a mix of horror and childish self-righteousness. Naturally, I could never be guilty of opening a box like that. But now I look at Pandora with different eyes. It’s an Adam and Eve story, of course. In the myth Pandora is considered the first woman on earth. She is given a jar or box, told it is filled with gifts, and warned never open it for any reason. She’s a bit of a meme now, thousands of years later, because her curiosity does get the better of her, and she lifts the forbidden lid, unleashing illness, misery, and all kinds of evil on an unsuspecting world. She smacked the lid back down, but it was too late. Lots of people still haven’t forgiven her for this. If only she had contained it, we would not have had to suffer so! If only the virus had stayed in the bats where it belonged, if only I hadn’t gotten cancer at the same time our family imploded, if only Porter had been able to sing “Lily’s Eyes” in the Secret Garden! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!
I think we’ve missed the point. In Greek “Pandora” means “one who bears all gifts,” and her magic box still contains one more, the gift of Hope. The myth tells us that Pandora was intentionally designed by the gods to be curious, and read one way she is a punishment to humankind, a warning for all stupid enough to disobey. But if that is true, why name her Pandora? It makes no sense.
What if “curious” is another word for “brilliant?” What if Pandora’s true genius was recognizing that no human can gain strength who had not first faced weakness. But why would such a clever woman shut the box on Hope, trapping it inside? Surely suffering people need something to hold onto. But here again she is maligned by those who choose to ignore the great paradox of her story. Hope cannot be trapped, nor can it fly out.
When Evil flew streaking from the box, eager to impose its hateful will on any possible victim, Hope lingered in the bottom of the box because it was the only gift that cannot be imposed on anyone. We are required to seek it out, individually reaching our hands into Pandora’s infinite and enchanted box to capture our own personal version, tailor-made for our specific circumstances. The trouble is, it’s easier to blame someone else than to reach into the box for ourselves.
I once watched a documentary recounting the long and bloody history of the Tower of London, and one of the guides made a comment that stuck with me. He said that people loved gruesome tales from centuries ago, but stories from the last hundred years make them squeamish and uneasy. I think those last grisly participants must be wearing clothes that look too similar to ours. How can we point our fingers and claim superiority if nobody is wearing tights and cod pieces?
Technically there is no such thing as the “New Now.” Modern man is no different than plague man from the middle ages, or ancient man from the Bible. Pandora’s gifts have continued raging through the world since she first lifted the lid on her box. It’s just rare that the whole world experiences the same gift at the same time. Perhaps it is a curse, but it could also be an opportunity. We won’t know until we graduate.
My son, Porter, will graduate with the class of 2020, but he is not alone. The whole human family has been forced to look a monster in the eyes, but before I run screaming, I want to look hard into the pupils, and see what I can learn. That is the Hope of the future. Think about it as you move your tassel to the left.