Being First: A Graduation Legacy

Last week a class of 115 students proudly walked across the stage of our church auditorium to receive their diplomas from a new high school in Washington State.  My son was one of these students in the first graduating class of Nikola Tesla STEM High School.  Naturally it was a proud moment for family and friends in attendance as well as the faculty and staff.

What it means to be firstBeing first, the administration had the opportunity to create a graduation ceremony that was unique and fitting to this academic community of STEM scholars.   The evening had many memorable highlights and surprises.

What it Means to be First

One of the surprises was an essay penned by each of the graduating seniors to the prompt: “What it Means to be First.”  Their essays were alphabetically listed in the program in the order that they would later walk across the stage to accept their diplomas.  It warmed my heart to read my son’s essay while waiting for the ceremony to start.

“Being first can mean going before others into the unknown but can also mean to claim a reward for your efforts.   Being first to graduate from STEM fits both of these definitions.  While I specifically am not the first, I am among them; the entire graduating class is the first.  We will be the first to claim our reward from the school for the years of work we put into our education and the first to leave this school and begin our lives as adults.  Our teachers will be the first to watch us go and the first to be proud for the students they invested years of their lives into.  Our parents will be first to say goodbye as they help us prepare for what lies beyond high school.  And we shall be the first to be grateful for all of these investments of time and energy as we remember the time we spent here for the rest of our lives.”

My son later shared that he easily wrote that essay as an in-class English assignment.  That was significant because many times during the school year he struggled to get a start on his writing assignments.  He would stare at the blank page for long periods of time.  This short essay was a gift to read and re-read knowing that it marked a breakthrough in his writing, and possibly his ADHD barriers to creatively express himself.

STEM 2015 Yearbook

STEM Yearbook

Graduation Speeches that Inspired

Graduations are full of speeches intended to inspire students as they start on their next level of education or venture out into the world.  These speeches were no exception.

We heard from the Superintendent of the school district.  As a writer, I thoroughly enjoyed her speech as she compared their journey to chapters in a book and identified the students as authors of their stories.

Student speeches followed.  A pair of students spoke on the phases and milestones that this first class journeyed through to get to this point: school construction, developing clubs and extracurricular activities, defining internship opportunities, naming of the school, and more.  That was followed by two more student addresses.

The second speaker creatively wove famous quotes from 50 other historical speeches and famous movies.  He quoted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I have a Dream speech.  He cheered on the graduates exclaiming: “Live long and prosper” and “May the force be with you.” The audience broke into bursts of laughter throughout.  It was highly entertaining.

Below is a short video clip of a few graduation highlights created by the Lake Washington School District.

As much as I enjoyed those speeches, it was the faculty address by my son’s English teacher that meant the most to me.  Throughout her speech she wove the theme of the “Odyssey” by Homer, an ancient Greek poem about Odysseus’ journey home after the fall of Troy.  (The senior class chose to read this because they entered STEM starting with their sophomore year and missed reading it as freshman.)

It wasn’t the story that she told, but the examples she shared of memorable student moments that again hit an accord with me.  That was because his teacher anonymously shared something my son did in class.

Faculty addressA Compassionate Heart

Several weeks prior, to celebrate this teacher’s birthday, she held a Poetry Café.  Students were asked to bring in a favorite poem or one that they wrote and to share it with the class.  That night at the dinner table, our son told us about that day and what he did—heeding to his heart.

At the graduation ceremony, his teacher got choked up when she spoke these words to the audience:

“A quiet student stood in 3rd period, a student not many had heard from.  This was in a Poetry Café.  When the student stood, he stated I don’t have a poem I just want to tell you how much you mean to me.”

I felt the tears start to well up inside me too—proud Mama tears.

This teacher made a difference in my son’s life.  English was not his favorite subject, but English was his favorite class while at STEM.  She was his favorite teacher all three years and made English interesting to him.   When she signed his yearbook days before, she said he always made her smile and referenced the Poetry Café.  She wrote that my son worked so hard and she was extremely proud of him.

GraduationOn the eve of graduation I sent her an email telling her too how much she meant to my son.  She encouraged him throughout his high school struggles with his ADHD and instilled confidence in him.  She believed in him.

Then a few days ago I made one final stop at the school to see this teacher and give her a personalized copy of my book, Journeys to Mother Love.  We talked about the Poetry Café again.  She went on to share that one female student in the class told the teacher several times how touched she was by what my son said and that it made her cry (like it did the teacher).

My son has that way about him—kind, compassionate, and caring.  Someday a young woman will look past his shy demeanor, connect with him on more than a surface level, and sparks will fly, but not yet.

His teacher and I parted ways with a hug and tears welling up in our eyes.  Oh, to be a teacher and collect those special memories—knowing that they made a difference in a student’s life.

A School with a Heart

Back to the graduation…following the faculty address by my son’s English teacher, the student’s ceremoniously walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.  With a small group of graduates, they were able to add another memorable highlight to the ceremony.  There wasn’t one person who shook the hand of each student or even a rotation of teachers handing out diplomas.  Somehow they arranged it so that students received their diplomas from a teacher of their choice.  He proudly smiled for the photographer and received his diploma from his English teacher.

IMG_2619Before the customary switching of the tassel from one side of the mortar board hat to the other, another surprise awaited the parents of these fine graduates.  They had each written their parents a thank you note (another English assignment).  They were challenged to quickly find their parents in the crowd, give them the note, and return to their seats.  (You can’t do that in a large high school!)  More tears were shed in reading our son’s hand written note thanking us for our understanding of all he went through to complete high school and that he was grateful for how he was raised.

For the last three years of my son’s life, he forged a path of firsts with the other students at this school.  In a world that is continually more and more focused on ‘likes,’ attention on achievements, and social media presence, it’s nice to see that my son has his head in the right place…and that is in his heart.

I’m proud that is the legacy he left Nikola Tesla STEM High School.

Congratulations STEM Class of 2015 Graduates!  And thank you teachers and faculty for making STEM a school with a heart.

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    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

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