Graduated Expectations

May 24th is the anniversary of my husband’s death, but this year I am in such a manic-panic over getting my son ready to graduate school, I barely remember until afterward. When the hullabaloo dies down, I am emotionally wrung out. I am a moldy, gray dishrag of a human being. But, I am also very relieved it hasn’t gone worse than expected. It did go about as bad as I thought it might, but no worse. And in my son’s world, that is a good outcome.

* * *

As most of you know, my son is on the autism spectrum. He is non-verbal and has many sensory challenges–including an intolerance of crowds of people and avoidance of overwhelming venues. Despite knowing this, I decide to have my child take part in the school’s graduation program. Other parents with kids like mine have made different choices. Likely smarter choices. A fellow classmate has his ‘graduation’ ceremony in a near empty gymnasium with very few attendees participating. His face is all smiles in his graduation robe and cap. But, I want my son to try for the full experience. Why I want this, I now wonder, but it is my tendency to push the envelope with the kid, even if the envelope pushes back and gives major papercuts in return.

The week is full of demands–first up is the school assembly on Monday. It is long and tedious, but very calm. I like the part where all the lights go out for the baby pictures vs. senior photos. Not because of the slideshow but because all the teens in the room turn on their cell phone flashlights in the bleachers. It is like a tiny explosion of stars forming swaying constellations celebrating the end of school. It is totally unscripted and by far the best part of the show.

Tuesday I plant an insane number of flowers with the help of two cousins. Without them, I wouldn’t have got it done or been able to walk for days afterward if I’d done it by myself.

Wednesday, I take the kid to visit a program similar to the one he’ll be attending in the fall. My son is in a terrible mood and we barely made it through the building without incident. I suspect the teacher is now hoping we will try to switch to the school that will have a pool available.

The rest of the day is spent having my son write out thank-you notes to everyone who sent him a card or gift. He tries to sneak the cash people have enclosed, but I am wise to his grabby fingers. These funds are going toward camp! Okay, maybe a few stuffies and car rides will also happen. But first, I must begin cutting and pinning the pants I need to hem before tomorrow. Exhausted, I fall asleep instead.

The day arrives regardless of my preparedness:

Thursday–wow. I just can’t enumerate the number of warning signs that popped up to say ‘Maybe forcing your kid onto a stage in front of a thousand people with cameras rolling isn’t the best idea you’ve ever had.’ I ignore the portents of doom with an almost unhealthy measure of optimism that is completely at odds with my cynical nature.

The school requires attendance at a practice which starts at 10:00 a.m. We find the building and immediately park and follow a herd of students who all seem to know where they are going. We follow them so far around the building it feels like I should be coming back to my car any time. I should probably explain this strange, new location.

The school has so many students graduating that they ask a local mega church to donate their facilities for the event. I won’t name it. The building–while huge–was not responsible for my son’s challenges. And, if it weren’t for their very helpful security people, I may never have found our way back to our car. But, that’s the highlight of what was nearly two and a half hours of tedium interspersed by the excitement of repeatedly lining up and shuffling into a vast auditorium with 476 other people. This is not meant to be fun and my kid knows it. When his irritability increases to threat level yellow–I break out the calm-down meds that help us get through these moments. Within 20 minutes, he’s calm if not exactly happy. We escape the mammoth building at 12:30 and celebrate by getting lunch at Wendy’s. In order to lure the boy child into some facsimile of joy, we go pick out a cake at the nearby Family Fare. This, at least, meets with his approval.

The rest of the day I am frantically sewing the pants and then ironing them and his robe. I sew his honorary blue and purple cord for the participants in the school’s LINKS program onto his maroon robe. After that, I scrub my house so that my mom won’t freak at the potential contagion my housekeeping poses.

Grandma and Cousin Ellie show up just before it is go time. We pile into the car and drive less than three miles to the biggest *darned* church I have ever seen. This time I am smart enough to park near the entrance to the auditorium instead of the mile away spot I picked earlier in the day. One of his LINKS buddies is walking him across the stage and I am grateful that she was willing to exchange cell phone numbers. This is the one smart thing I do today. When I find an open parking spot, I see she’s already texted me.

LINKS Buddy: “Hey! I’m at our spot where we line up.”

I wonder briefly if she’s using full sentences because of my age? But, I’m grateful not to have to Google emojis and text speak to figure out what she’s saying. I text back that we are on our way.

The dance of getting the kid to his LINKS partner and then getting my mother and cousin into our reserved seating takes but minutes. The special needs graduates are in the row farthest back, the parents are wedged in just behind them. Now we wait for the 45 minutes it takes for the rest of the crowd to fill the place up to the rafters.

Do you want to know how big this church is? They had boom mounted cameras and three giant screen television/monitor thingies. It looks like a sound stage for a program we’ll call America’s Got Graduates. I am twitching and checking my phone ever few seconds to see if there are any emergency alerts. Nothing but a bathroom break and a message saying “He’s sitting down and super relaxed from the LINKS Buddy. I let my guard down the way someone in a horror film does when the scary sound they heard is revealed to be a cat. I ignore the shadowy presence of the scary monster waiting to jump out at me and hold my phone up waiting to capture this beautiful moment.

The MC starts speaking and the graduates are filing in. We all stand up. A million cell phones come out in preparation for the moment someone’s child crosses the stage. I can’t even pay attention. I’m waiting for the last row to fill up. We are singing the national anthem as the face of my son’s LINKS Buddy appears in front of my camera.

Where’s Alexei?” I say to her, but my voice is swallowed by the surrounding music.

The young woman gets close enough to tell me, “Alexei wouldn’t come into the auditorium.”

Then I hear it. Someone is calling to me from behind. I whip around and see the ParaPro (teacher’s aide) who helped us at the practice earlier in the day. I follow her, bracing myself for what I will find. Bad things happen in moments like these. My mind fills up with worries as I make it through the doors to the foyer outside. I see my son. He is on a bench, sobbing.

My kid doesn’t cry. Very nearly never. He cried once when his ear drum burst from an infection I had no idea was building up. He didn’t cry when he broke his arm. Tears are the sign something is terribly wrong.

I hunker close to him and take in his tear-stained, blotchy face. I should really just call it quits. But, darn it, we made it through a hellishly long practice. He waited the 45 minutes to get to crunch time. I give him his third dose of meds and sing-song calming nonsense and set a timer. If the speeches last long enough, maybe he’ll calm down in time? That’s what I’m thinking.

I promise him cake, car rides, stuffy toys galore to get him to take part. It will be literally a piece of cake if he does it. His tears shudder to a halt. He mutters “No shower time”…”No shower time” over and over. It suddenly strikes me that it is nearing his usual 7:15 shower time and maybe this is the only way he knows how to ask me to stop making him do this?

No shower time. That’s right! You already showered today.” I tell him. Then, I’m struck by one thing I can offer. “But if you go and graduate, I’ll let you take a bath tonight.

He’s mulling this over when I hear it. They are announcing that the graduates need to line up.

Shit. Shoot. Did I forget to mention, my son is the first person who is supposed to cross that stage? It’s now or never. I grab the tie he’d removed and gently shove it back over his head.

I get my son and lead him to the door…only to find we are locked out. While I pound on it, I can hear the announcer asking for quiet in the space for the graduates who are about to come onstage. I’m frantically banging the metal door and someone finally comes and opens it. I don’t even have a second to thank him. Instead, I am hustling my kid past rows and rows of waiting parents. I have no idea what we look like to them. Late arrivers disrupting the whole show? I don’t even care. I have seconds to get him to his place in line.

I am met by one of the school members in charge of the graduation practice. I hand off my kid like he’s a football and this is a hail Mary pass. I watch as they make their longggg walk to the front of the line–meanwhile the room is dead silent. I am holding my breath the entire time my son crosses to the center where he climbs steps to receive his certificate of completion. His name is announced. He’s handed the square of faux leather diploma cover. It takes only seconds and his LINKS buddy follows with her diploma and leads him off the stage to the waiting arms of his ParaPro. She brings him full circle back to me. My son looks like he’s wiped out–or maybe the meds have kicked in and he’s in a pharmaceutical happy place instead of this room which is starting to make noise now that the special graduates are finished. I signal our departure to Grandma and Cousin Ellie. We gather up our things and leave as if we are trying to beat the rush home. And really, we are. There is cake waiting, after all.


You’ve read this far bonus:

I kept a whole bunch of t-shirts from his father for my son to wear, and one special shirt for his graduation day. What my husband and I failed to predict was the size of the child we would have. Instead, my boy wore his father’s tie across the stage. Fortunately, from the distance away you could not tell that in my haste, I put it on him backwards the second time–with the tag showing and the knot face down.

I did not manage to take a single photo of my son at graduation. Fortunately, in her infinite wisdom, my son’s teacher took pictures of the graduates at the school their last week. Otherwise, I would have no pictures of him in his gown. Here he is in happier times before he finds out what graduation actually means:

I am very grateful to the staff who helped my son every step of the very rocky path of education. I am grateful to the LINKS students who are kind as well as brave enough to take on the kids like mine. And thank you to my family who supported and encouraged me along the way. As my cousin Ellie said, “He crossed the stage. He graduated. That is a happy ending!”

1 thought on “Graduated Expectations

  1. We had graduation on Friday. Being a contrarian, I find all of the pomp and circumstance pretty silly, but I get it. It’s a big deal. Nice to hear that you’ve got the next stage of your son’s life set up.


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