06/07/2013 10:05 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

The (High School) Graduate

My daughter graduated from high school on Sunday. She put on the school's graduation uniform, marched up when her name was called, shook hands with the head of school, and accepted the 8.5" by 11" scroll, tied with a green ribbon, which signified the official end of her high school education. She is just one of the estimated 3.4 million American teenagers who will go through some variation of this ritual over the next month.

I didn't cry during the ceremony, but other parents wept openly. An emotional mother of a lovely new graduate was red-eyed and blotchy, wiping away tears while trying to arrange photos of her daughter with teachers and friends. A choked-up dad (and former school trustee) who had the privilege of awarding his daughter her diploma wandered back to his seat on the grass, and wiped tears from his face. An otherwise well-adjusted woman I know doesn't need a life ceremony to get emotional about her daughter: she sobs openly whenever discussing the girl's growth, overcome each time, presumably, with the miracle of life. As expected, I watched my daughter step gracefully across the green field, stare straight ahead, and felt... pleased. Glad for her, relieved that she's done it -- but not emotional or melancholy. She's completed one of the necessary rites of passage that frankly was never in doubt.

What do the criers feel that I don't? Maybe a greater awareness of the passage of time. Loss -- of their own time, and of their children's. A premonition about the void that will take place in a few months, when their offspring will leave their original home and make a new one someplace else. Perhaps these parents are overwhelmed with memories of their children when they were young sprites scampering across the lawn, so needy and vulnerable. Maybe the contrast between the poised young women marching across the field and the still-fresh images of them babbling in a high chair, or giggling on a swing, is all it takes to collapse in a wave of teary nostalgia. Perhaps the waterworks at graduation are actually the body's way of processing relief -- a natural reflex to years of pent-up stress and anxiety, let go at last.

Other teenage life events strike me as more life-changing than high school graduation. Getting a driver's license, for one, frees kids to explore the world beyond home without Mom or Dad. It's the teenage equivalent of the baby who learns to walk: suddenly they're going places of their own choosing and all you can do is keep their surroundings safe, harangue them to stay out of trouble, and hope they don't stick their tongue in an electrical socket. Finding that first real boyfriend or girlfriend, with all the longing and danger that goes with deep feeling, is also more momentous. Memories of your first teenage love stay with you longer than the stirring words of any high school valedictorian. And then there's the rite of passage to end all rites of passage: the dog and pony show that we politely call "the college process," wherein children throw themselves at the mercy of unknown, Oz-like adults, and beg for validation. Now, there's something to cry about.

Maybe we commemorate high school graduations because they allow us to celebrate publicly, and together, our children's passage through these other, more private crucibles. Perhaps graduation is a kind of omnibus event that implicitly acknowledges having survived adolescence, for parent and child alike. The cap and gown and mortar board, or white dress and sweet bouquet of roses in my daughter's case, is a way to dignify and formalize the transition out of late childhood and into young adulthood.

And perhaps high school graduations are as much for the parents and families as for the graduates themselves. Maybe this is why parents say "congratulations" to other parents whose children have just walked off the stage with that signed slip of paper. You did it too! We navigated our children through the minefields of adolescence, without lasting damage (that we know of)!

Warnings of a violent storm threatened to interrupt my daughter's ceremony, but the winds and rain held off long enough for us to hear every student's name read aloud and to witness each girl go up and receive her golden ticket. Cicadas hummed and buzzed, but not so loudly as to drown out the frightfully articulate senior nominated to address the class, nor the history teacher who advised the graduates to "be smart, be kind, be careful, be awesome." When it was over, everyone hugged and smiled and took photos -- and more, and more, and more photos -- until finally it really was all over, and the fresh graduates scattered into separate cars and took off into the evening.


Julie Flanagan, Lilli DeBode, and Mattie Coacher.