Undefined Feelings at Graduation by Sharon O’Donnell
I’m not quite sure what it is – why I feel such a sense of melancholy as my middle son graduates from high school and prepares to leave for college in August. I think it’s a combination of things that makes this experience different from the one I had when my oldest son graduated and went to college three years ago. First, my oldest son went to a college that is in our town, a mere 15 minutes away, while my middle one will be going to a college two hours away down Interstate 40. Two hours is not a lot, but it’s not like having him in the same town where he could come home if he feels sick or needs to study or where I can drop by with an item he forgot.
Secondly, my middle son has battled anxiety for the past two years, and my husband and I have always been right there in case he needed us, along with his doctors; now, if the anxiety should happen to flare, we will be two hours away, and the resources that he’s depended on at school and in the medical field – the support network he’s had – will not be there within easy reach. Thus, I’m uptight about all this. He’s been doing well with his anxiety, and it hasn’t flared up since December, but there’s always that dreaded possibility that it will rear its ugly head again.
So, it’s understandable that his going to college is having more of an emotional impact on me than when his older brother left. Plus, our middle son has always been a good student, but he has battled a learning disability (processing difficulties) since pre-school age, and I’ve played more of a role in his school and academic life than I ever had to play with my older son. Emails to teachers and coaches – and at times when the anxiety spiked – even principals. Emails to and meetings with school counselors regarding his IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) that allowed for extra time on tests if needed and other possible modifications. And until the past year or so, I’d actually help him focus when he studied by calling out questions to him. Sometimes I was up as late as he was as we went over information for tests. All this could be exhausting – and I’ve been glad that he’s gradually reached the point that he doesn’t need my help any longer; the anti-anxiety medication, I think, has helped him to be able to focus better. Still, as he leaves for college, I feel a bit like I’m deserting him – even though he needs that independence. Bur for so long, he really did need me that it’s harder for me to let go than it was with his older brother.
And speaking of his older brother, he will be living in an apartment with three college buddies this summer and during the next school year – his senior year. He has a paid internship this summer, and yes – I’m glad about all that. But along with my middle son leaving, I’m realizing that my oldest son has probably left not just for college – but for good.
Enter into all of those things that my youngest son – age 11 – is starting middle school in July. Such changes middle school brings. My husband and I went to his orientation at his new school this past week, and I know my son is excited about going, about the new independence he will find. I remember my oldest son saying that one of the neat things about going from elementary school to middle school was that you didn’t have to walk in a line everywhere from one place to the other with your class.
I’m happy for my youngest son, and I’m looking forward to the middle school experience with him; however, I have to admit that while I was sitting there during the orientation, I felt an empty spot inside regarding my middle son. I kept thinking of when HE had started middle school and how it seemed like merely yesterday – and it hurt so much. I don’t know if it’s because of the fact that the anxiety had been so mild in middle school that it went undiagnosed and then flared to affect him in high school – Perhaps I was feeling like this because I thought of all that our middle son had come through and how at the start of middle school with him we were oblivious to what would happen later. Our middle son has been successful academically and athletically – but not as much as he would have been if he had not had the anxiety. Maybe if we’d recognized the symptoms earlier rather than just assuming it was all the learning disability, the road in high school would have been smoother.
As he graduates, he wears the gold cords around his neck, symbolizing that he is a member of the National Honor Society, and we are so proud of him for achieving that with his good grades, service, and character. Still, he was disappointed to learn this week at Senior Night that he wouldn’t get to stand up and be recognized as an ‘honor student’ because that required a cumulative grade point average of a 3.75, and his was a 3.72. He didn’t realize that until he looked in the program and saw that his name wasn’t printed in bold print. My husband and I noticed it too, and we decided not to say anything to him after the ceremony because – honestly – it didn’t matter to us; we knew what he had come through with anxiety and how he battled through it, and I KNOW that no parent was more proud of their child than we were – probably more so than most because of what he had been through. Yet, we knew the ‘honor student’ thing was going to bother him, and it did. It was the first thing he said to us when we saw him after the ceremony. It reminded me of those years in elementary school when a lot of his friends were deemed ‘gifted and talented’ and he wasn’t, which sometimes caused him to call himself stupid – which he wasn’t at all, of course. But yeah, I remembered those days and those struggles.
And I guess going back into the middle school environment with my youngest son at his orientation brought back a lot of those memories with my middle son, and there are still some wounds from his educational experience – including even the high school years – that haven’t healed. I’m thrilled for the students with a 5.0 GPA and I realize the tremendous effort, dedication, and intellect it took them to attain that; at the same time, I know there are students out there who didn’t get to stand up and be recognized as official ‘honor’ students who have just as much – if not more – of a reason to be honored for their accomplishments, for battling personal problems that could have easily taken over their lives and prevented them from being successful.
Indeed, all this past semester, as other parents would mention how they were sad their children would be graduating, I never felt this sadness because I was so extremely happy and thankful that our son felt normal again and that he was finishing high school successfully with no anxiety. But now, as everything happens with high school ending for him, college almost over for his older brother, and middle school just beginning for the younger one, I suddenly feel a sense of loss, an emptiness, that I had not expected to feel. I’ve tried to evaluate it, tried to define it – so that I can come to terms with it and get rid of it – but I can’t figure it out.