07/08/2012 09:50 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2012

When Graduating From High School Isn't All We Expected


"Graduation just wasn't what I was expecting," the young man said to me as we stretched before running. We were training together for a race later that summer. "It's as if everything's still the same, but isn't."

What was he expecting? He couldn't say. He thought he had accomplished something, but now felt like graduating from high school had left a kind of emptiness behind. It seemed to have brought almost no change to his life.

He hung out with or avoided the same people. Except for running with me a couple of times a week, he had the same daily routine -- wake up, eat, get nagged by his parents, go to work, eat lunch, work some more, get nagged some more, work out (sometimes), eat supper, play Xbox or computer games, go to sleep. He talked about being in a kind of holding pattern; he walked across the stage the beginning of June and doesn't move into his dorm room until the beginning of September.

Is it the waiting around that explains this disconnect between expectations and reality? How about those graduates who aren't going anywhere or waiting for anything? They are the ones who graduate from high school into permanent jobs or marriages or boot camp, without any lag time between ending one thing and starting the next. Do they feel substantially different after graduation? Is there less emptiness in their lives this first summer after walking across that stage?

My observations tell me it's pretty much the same story for them, too, but I don't know enough young people who make those choices to know for sure -- if the difference between satisfaction and discontent really flows from waiting around versus jumping into something that looks permanent right away.

What's going on? Is graduation really not as important as we think? What about the other goalposts in our lives -- like graduating from college or getting that first full-time job after graduation? Do we have skewed expectations of what these big events mean, too?

I think it's about trying to find happiness, at least in part. That noble concept was important enough to our political ancestors that they enshrined it in the Declaration of Independence, along with the pursuit of life and liberty.

Contrary to those ideals, what I've learned is that the actual achievement of happiness is elusive. We focus our energies on pursuit, on getting that thing or reaching that goal so that -- finally -- we will be happy. Then we get the thing or reach the goal, and happiness isn't there waiting for us.

Not much comfort in that.

So what does graduation mean, if it's not something that makes us happy? What are we supposed to feel after we walk across that stage?

We have achieved something, after all, even if it's only jumping through the hoops set up by society and school officials. We have survived. For me, high school graduation was more about survival than anything else. It meant I could leave the chaotic social labyrinth of adolescence behind. No more high school dramas. No more awkward social situations -- or so I thought, since the dramas of college and career were both still ahead of me.

Still, graduations did mean something to me, as if each one became a doorway to the next part of the journey. Or as if they were like passing tests.

Maybe passing tests is a better metaphor. After all, so many American youth now live in states that require the passing of tests before diplomas can be certified.

"Life is a series of tests," Sherlock Holmes says in one story, "and the last one is the most important." By that he means death and what comes after. And that, too, is part of each graduation -- each milestone means we've also gotten older.

Again, not much comfort in these words.

I do not think I was able to ease all of my young friend's discontent; I tend to look at the darker side of life, where happiness is not part of the story. But he seemed less burdened after that run and that conversation. Maybe using language to try to describe his discontent helped a little. Sometimes the simple act of naming things does that for people.