"Lives a life only imagined, like a sea star on the sandy floor-
We are a five-pointed wonder ready to discover
Beautiful, strong, majestic, unique and talented.
As the starfish has its ocean, we have the world.
Ready to grow and venture forward."
The above poem was written by the creative writing class of Cape Cod Community College's Project Forward program. It was read this afternoon during commencement exercises. In this season of graduations, similar sentiments might be shared frequently; but seldom will they be imparted with such passion. You see, this is a class of fighters. These young adults have differing learning styles. Some have communication challenges. Some have autism or Aspergers'. Most have known the perils of school systems that struggle to be inclusive while protecting dignity and guarding against discrimination. Many admit to the frustration of learning differently, of being different, or of being perceived as anything other than your run of the mill student. Both speakers from today's graduating class touched upon their challenges, but each went on to speak the truth. Each refused to be defined by a label or a disability. Each expressed eloquent gratitude for all that is, for all that has been, and for all that is yet to be.
Several awards were presented during the ceremony. A hush fell over the crowd as each recipient was described. Then, there was thundering applause. The entire class stood and honored each award winner with a standing ovation. When graduation certificates were distributed, each student came forward. Some proudly donned the royal blue cap and gown that had been issued to them. Others found the gowns confining, itchy or otherwise unacceptable and simply wore a blue collar. All wore the smile of a young adult crossing a threshold; a mix of pride and trepidation. There was no holding of applause, and if the ceremony took a bit longer to allow for applause after each name was read and the handshakes that often turned to hugs as diplomas were received, no one seemed to mind. There was an understanding in this auditorium. There was appreciation of how hard the graduates have worked, and for the teachers who give their all to the program. There was the universal understanding among family members that happens at all such events. Although I am there for my graduate, I will likely cry when your child/sibling/nephew steps on stage as well. There is a current of compassion that runs in and around and through gatherings such as today's graduation. Caught up in the current are all the "what ifs", the "might have beens", the differences, the struggles. But that isn't what fuels the tears that I continue to shed as I write this. Also flowing in the current are the triumphs; the words spoken by children who were unlikely to talk, poems written and read by students for whom learning to read was challenging, eye contact and a handshake given by a person with sensory issues. Some of us have only dipped our feet in the water, while others have spent years navigating the current. I was honored to sit with our niece throughout the ceremony. Her brother received his certificate; his second (and last, he enthuses!) college graduation. Two years ago, they lost their mother, his strongest advocate. The way in which their sibling bond has increased and strengthened is inspiring. She shares her home and her life with her brother. He is brilliant and kind hearted. He will also always require someone in his life willing to jump in and sometimes to hold back the waters for him. For the rest of us at the water's edge, this is a poignant reminder of what binds us all to each other. Each of us is, as the poem says, beautiful, strong, majestic, unique and talented. Some of us can venture forward independently. Some will simply take more time.
To those who never dreamed they would need to chart these waters; for whom the word "disability" sounds horribly frightening, I wish you and your child, grandchild or sibling many days like today. I wish you tears of pride and joy. I wish you the wonder of hearing the words spoken by one of the class speakers as he looked out over his graduating class: " When I look at you...I wouldn't change a thing about you. And I wouldn't change a thing about me, either."