A wet breeze ruffled my red, white and blue tassel as I stood behind the bleachers with a clipboard, lining up my classmates for graduation—my last duty as vice president of the New Smyrna Beach High School Class of 1976.
Ordinary kids from small-town, ocean-side America, we marked America’s 200 years along with our own twelve of American education.
I handed my clipboard to Dale Ann Clark, president of the class, and stepped into my spot closer to the beginning of the alphabet than the end, like my class ranking of 55 out of 320.
Nervous chatter and stray rain drops peppered our procession.
My eyes found my friends—most of whom were graduating with honors—Jackie Herold, Cum Laude; Jeannine Marek, Magna Cum Laude; Rhonda Reichel, Summa Cum Laude. My 3.4 grade point average didn’t Laude anything, unless it was my lightweight IQ—or possibly the nine schools I attended.
I filed into my row on the football field and palmed the droplets from the metal folding chair. James Knox sat three rows back, on my left. For two years an annoying internal radar had tracked his whereabouts. I blew out a breath and glanced at the bleachers where R.J., Mom, Ralph, and Grandma downed their umbrellas.
Disappointment and relief arm-wrestled inside. Dad, a hippie past his prime, prompted embarrassment rather than feel-good emotions. Not for the first time I wished my father favored frequent haircuts, Lifebuoy, and driving a Ford instead of a Schwinn.
I wish he favored me.
I tucked the empty feeling into the folds of my gown and crossed my arms to keep it there. The humiliation of Dad showing up would be worse. I steered my thoughts to happier things–graduation parties, being named Best Personality in the senior class, long walks with Sean Clerkin excavating Catholicism and college and the cobwebs in our brains.
The sky spit intermittently as Salutatorian Donald Obenauer stood and raised his eyes to the rain. “This is the perfect end to a perfect year.”
I laughed and smashed my hand over my mouth. Sue Ellen Henderson—next year’s valedictorian—was probably
shooting me the hairy eyeball from where she sat with the band. I could almost see her smile break through a fake scowl.
My hyena—according to my friends—laugh earned me Most Carefree in the senior class. Would they tease me if they knew how little I laughed before New Smyrna Beach? Would the class have cast me as carefree if they knew I went home with tension headaches everyday and worried myself into irritable bowel syndrome? But New Smyrna Beach was changing me. I felt safe here. I belonged.
Water winked in the stadium lights, weeping crystalline droplets over the denouement of the best two years of the eighteen I’d lived.
The prize in those years had been “my people.” If New Smyrna Beach was my safe place, Jackie Herold was my safe person. Susan Sigler, Diana Knox, Jeannine Marek, and Rhonda Reichel spoke sarcasm like I did. Sue Ellen had stirred her crazy mix of nerdiness, intensity, and deep down friendship into me. We’d talked loud and laughed often, traded and sometimes shared our crushes. We’d cruised New Smyrna Beach for boys in Susan’s baby blue Chevette—holding up magic markered signs like Hiya! Nice! And Lunch!
The rain turned to mist, then disappeared as I climbed the steps to the makeshift stage. My gaze flicked across the stands, looking and not looking for Dad. Then Mr. Pickhardt handed me the paper that proved I’d passed, but chronicled so much more.
The thin sheet of parchment stood for the 1975 Volusia County Creative Writing Award and Elks Student of the Month. It represented a year as feature editor of the Barracuda and contributor to the Kaleidoscope literary magazine. And maybe the Florida Democratic Caucus Sue Ellen had talked me into counted. I’d traipsed across state to St. John’s River College, saw a manatee, and voted for Jimmy Carter.
Not that those things would have impressed Dad. He had lifted his brows when I told him I’d been named captain of the high school swim team. But the title, as well as my cache of ribbons, couldn’t wow the man who captained the University of Miami’s team, whose medals were pinned in a frame the size of a picture window.
Dale Ann stood and transferred her tassel from right to left. The class followed.
Whoops and hats and red, white, and blue fireworks flung into the sky.
I thought about the tiny scholarship, supersized financial aid, and ten-year loan that would pave my way to Florida Southern College and life. I thought about freedom and flying into adulthood—tasting Boones Farm, voting in my first presidential election, cutting off my hair, and finally, untangling myself from James.
From the distance of several decades I’ve determined that if I did please Dad, the praise went unsaid. His criticisms, however, came out in perfect diction, straight-arrowing down to core and bone. Mom’s compliments overflowed, trying and failing to count for two.
In Stuart my girlfriends kept me from making life-wrecking flubs as I freefalled from the fracture of my parents’ marriage. Unfettered from my father and parochial school, Stuart felt fragile, unsafe to adolescent me.
Those who became my people in New Smyrna Beach gifted me with home and a better normal.
I wrote four novels and a memoir to say thank you.
In New Smyrna Beach I garnered the approval I never got from Dad. Later my husband and children would complete the healing—until it didn’t really matter that a million Dad-words had gone missing. On that rain-sparkled graduation night, and in this morning’s rare Arizona shower, I don’t wish my life had gone down any other way than it did.
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