When I received the invitation, I knew I couldn’t miss this important event in her life
the last few years, I’ve gone to countless graduations for my kids’ or close relatives’ or good friends’ children.
Yes, I know it’s an exciting moment in everyone’s life, but really, only the faces of the graduates and the guests changed at each event — the proceedings were all the same. First the procession, then the awards ceremony, then the valedictorian’s speech, then the principal’s two cents, then the diploma allocation, then the student choir, then the procession back behind the curtains, and then the graduates euphorically emerging into the welcoming arms of their parents and close relatives and friends.
Yep, same old… same old… and getting to be a bit boring.
(To be totally honest, whenever I had to go to a graduation, even ones when my own children were graduating, which I was thrilled to attend, I’d hoped the speeches wouldn’t be too long so I could go and hug the graduate and, on more than one occasion — dare I say it? — get to those delicious-looking refreshments!)
I’d come to a point that I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to sit through another graduation ceremony anytime in the near future and decided I was going to politely decline any further invitations. That is… until I got an invitation to attend Blimie’s high school graduation.
How time flies by! Since Blimie didn’t live near me, I didn’t even realize how old she was. I’d seen her at different simchahs throughout the years, since her parents are very close friends of mine. I recall thinking the last time I saw her what a beautiful young woman she’d blossomed into. When I received the invitation, I knew I couldn’t miss this important event in her life. Even though the travel time would be eight hours round-trip (much less than a graduation ceremony from beginning to end), I knew I’d go… and how thankful I am that I did!
What was it about this special day in the life of a teenage girl that I couldn’t possibly miss? Blimie has Down syndrome, and the thought that she’d achieved this tremendous milestone of graduating high school made me rethink the promise I’d made to myself to stay away from graduation ceremonies.
Blimie’s graduation ceremony was held in the charmingly furnished basement of a very large home. Since there were only five other girls in Blimie’s class, the facilities were definitely large enough to host the graduates’ family and friends. I walked into a room adorned with bright balloons and flowers, an abundance of refreshments beautifully displayed on tables in the back corner. And this is hard to describe, but “love” was in the air!
As soon as Blimie saw me, she called out, “Hey, Becca, I’m over here! Thank you for coming to my graduation!” She then came over to me and enveloped me in a big hug. As I hugged her back, the strain of those hours I’d just spent driving seemed to melt away.
Everyone in the room was in high spirits and talking animatedly. The joy was palpable.
I picked up one of the programs that had been placed on all of the seats and sat down. I noticed there were quite a few tissue boxes placed strategically in each row. Yes… this was definitely going to be a happy but emotional ceremony.
The graduates took their places in the front of the room. They all wore a white blouse adorned with a colorful corsage. The ceremony began with the responsive recitation of a kapitel of Tehillim. Then the principal stood at the podium to talk about “her girls.” It was obvious she had a special relationship with her students and, as she spoke fondly about each of them, you could hear the pride in her voice.
After her talk, the girls rose to sing a song about how Hashem created the world made up of different people, just like He created different colors in a rainbow. There wasn’t a dry eye in the basement when the girls finished their rendition of this song. Those tissues were definitely put to good use!
Each of the graduates spoke for a few minutes, each on her own level. Some of the girls had Down syndrome, while others had different disabilities, so some of the speeches were composed of three sentences, while others were a little longer. Blimie got up and gracefully thanked her family and family friends for coming.
During the speeches, you could have heard a pin drop. After each girl finished her speech, she took a bouquet of flowers and presented it to her mother. One girl caused an outburst of applause and laughter when she ran to a corner of the room and presented the bouquet to her father.
The joy on the faces of these parents was something extraordinary to behold. Their parental pride at this monumental milestone in their daughters’ lives was plain to see. Blimie’s mother was sitting beside me, and I squeezed her hand.
The highlight of the graduation (at least for me) was the slideshow. The girls were shown in all kinds of settings, from toddlers playing together to kindergarteners learning in the classroom to teenagers doing chesed in the community. It was amazing to see how these students, who had so many different challenges to overcome from a young age, had progressed to where they were today. The unbelievable achievement of their graduation came through loud and clear. Unlike in a regular high school, where there can be fierce competition to receive the highly coveted valedictorian honor, these girls were all valedictorians in their own right.
Of course, what graduation would be complete without the handing out of diplomas? These young women received their diplomas amid cheering from all of us. The smiles on their faces showed that, to a degree, they understood the significance of what they’d accomplished. They were also very excited to receive their own siddur with their name beautifully engraved on the cover.
But that wasn’t all. The wonderful staff of the school had also put together a graduation yearbook that had a full page dedicated to each girl. And these truly caring individuals — from teachers to administrators to the therapists to the secretaries in the school office — had written messages encouraging the graduates to continue using their special talents and complimenting them on what they’d achieved.
After the ceremony, Blimie came over to me and, with the incredibly beautiful smile that only a person with Down syndrome can give, thanked me again for coming.
But, truthfully, it was I who was grateful that day. Because it took a unique ceremony like the one I’d just witnessed with Blimie to look at graduations from the right perspective. I knew I’d never view graduation ceremonies quite the same way again.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 847)
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