What It Was Like to Have a Child Graduate from High School

Rob did not want to make a big deal out of high school graduation: light on the pomp, minimally-required circumstance. He didn’t participate in many of the optional fun senior things. And he’s going on to college, so he didn’t have that “done with school” feeling. So this is a report of that kind of graduation.

The week before high school graduation, there was an assortment of activities: final exams, several rehearsals for graduation, handing out yearbooks, picking up caps/gowns, a senior trip, a slideshow, a scholarship ceremony, an awards ceremony, a picnic.

I found I kept sort of forgetting about graduation, and then remembering it with a startled feeling. It sometimes felt like a big deal and sometimes didn’t.

There was also the odd overlay of remembering my own high school graduation, which doesn’t feel as long ago as it was. On the other hand, it’s long enough ago that I thought I remembered the song we were all playing then, and I was TOTALLY WRONG: the song I was thinking about came out after I graduated. So. I mean, I’d played it for Rob with tears welling in my eyes, full of fake memories of that song playing on the radio as we got ready for graduation, and now I feel a little sheepish. I had a whole mental montage, and it’s a lie.

Graduation, by Vitamin C

As with college tours, high school graduation gave me the “Look how OLD we all are” feeling. Who is that plump middle-aged woman standing next to Rob in his graduation gown in that photo? OH IT IS I. You know how older people often say they don’t feel as old as they look? THAT TIME HAS COME TO COLLECT ME INTO ITS SAGGING ARMS.

You already know I cry easily, but I cry PARTICULARLY easily at anything ceremonial/symbolic: national songs, parades, dress uniforms, ritual costumes, ritual music, ritual rituals, synchronized salutes, official declarations, everyone standing for the bride. The graduation processional was a weepy moment. The formal declaration of graduation, read by the superintendent of schools, was another such moment. Look at us doing our formal human things!

The speeches by the class president and the class valedictorian were mercifully short: I will listen without external eye-rolling to teenagers talk about following their dreams and changing the world, but it’s easier on my eye-strings if they can keep it brief.

Our high school has a principal who is much better than average at speeches: he’s warm, friendly, personal, funny. He managed the In Memoriam section without choking up, but with a couple of pauses that made me choke up to think of him trying to keep from choking up.

I had expected to be weepy during the diplomas, but I was not. I had expected to be bored, but I was not: I had forgotten that they read people’s FULL NAMES during graduation! I was extremely interested to hear everyone’s middle name, and sat riveted throughout. Rob has four names, two of them difficult to pronounce (one of them my maiden name), and the reader got them all right; Rob said the reader was at the graduation rehearsals, getting pronunciations from everyone and then double-checking them. (I remember that from my own high school graduation.) I was very pleased to hear my maiden name read aloud in connection with my child, and very pleased to hear it pronounced correctly.

Afterward, they said “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 2017!,” and all the parents stood up, and the graduates flung their caps into the air, and so there was another little dab at the eyes.

Then we found Rob in the crowd. I wanted pictures of him with some of his friends, and that wasn’t something he would have asked me to do but he was willing for me to do it, and then as it turned out he got into it once we started. Also, after feeling shy the first couple of times I had to ask a kid if I could take their picture with Rob, I felt much more comfortable: everyone was so chill about being asked, and so willing to pose, and I got a ton of cute pictures that Rob may appreciate later, but I wanted the photos for myself even if he doesn’t ever care about them.

Let’s see, now let’s talk about worries and how they turned out.

I was in general worried because it was a new thing and I didn’t know how it would go. But I was less worried than usual, because I’d been through high school graduation myself and knew the gist: I only needed to add the parental-role upgrade.

I was worried about Rob not participating in most of the senior fun stuff. I worried he’d regret it later. I worried that maybe I should have forced him. I worried it meant he was a weirdo. I expect to resolve these worries in one direction or another by the time he is my age.

We were all worried about the weather: if it had to be held indoors because of rain, then each graduate could only bring five guests; if it could be outdoors, there were no guest-number restrictions. (It did not rain.) I was also worried it would be very hot outside. (It was not.)

I was worried about what to wear, especially since there was the possibility of needing to climb bleachers. I didn’t need to worry, though: people wore everything from shorts/t-shirts to Easter church outfits.

I was worried about parking and seating, but that went fine. Graduates had to be there an hour before the ceremony, so we just stayed after dropping off Rob; there were still plenty of parking spaces and almost a full choice of seats. (I wouldn’t have wanted to come much later, though; people arrived in a constant stream, and I don’t know where everyone found parking.)

I was worried that it would be awkward to ask people to pose with Rob for pictures, but EVERYBODY was asking EVERYBODY to pose for pictures.

I was worried that I would cry an embarrassing amount, and that all the Sentimental Ritual Stuff would make me cry even more than I felt like crying—but I did not, and they did not. I’d say I cried significantly less than expected. I teared up a few times and that was it, and all around me other parents were doing the same. It’s much worse when I cry at band concerts, where NO ONE else is crying and I am doing a steady leak. The children are so earnest about their instrument-playing! and isn’t it wonderful that adults put in so much time and effort to teach children to make music! and look how much they improve each year! and look at how sweetly the older kids are helping the younger kids! And also there’s the inexplicably touching moment when the conductor does that signal that makes everyone put their instruments at the ready.

46 thoughts on “What It Was Like to Have a Child Graduate from High School

  1. Rachel

    i know you don’t owe us anything and that you make your decisions based on what’s best for your family, but I really wish there was one tiny little picture in this post. maybe a faceless rob in a cap and gown.

    No demanding pressure, just a musing.

  2. Tessie


    I was underwhelmed by graduation myself and, to my mother’s horror, did not attend the “senior party”, which she was sure I would regret (update over 20 years later-NO RAGRETS).

    I do remember someone saying it was the last time all of us would be in the same room together, and thinking that couldn’t POSSIBLY be true, but of course it was.

  3. HereWeGoAJen

    It just occurred to me that this year’s graduating class was born the year I graduated from high school.

    I really enjoy it when you write these kinds of posts. You do them so well too.

    1. Maggie

      Same here, assuming this years graduates are all approximately 18 years old!

      Just reading this post made me, a 36 year old non-parent, who may or may not ever become a parent, weepy. This is why I don’t think I should have kids… just reading about a high school graduation makes me weepy!!!

      1. Matti

        Me too! And I also remember that Vitamin C song as the one being played all over the year I graduated, I think it may have even played a part in the graduation itself?

        Your tear triggers are also my tear triggers, even dancers performing particularly well, or say Olympic athletes doing some feat, will set me off. I laughed and cried through this whole post. In a cathartic, pleasant way. Though, I did somewhat alarm my 9 year old, and found it very hard to explain exactly WHY I was crying.

    2. Laura

      Yes, I just realized that my relationship with my husband is older than most of the graduates. YIKES!

      1. Alexicographer

        Haha, mine too — and that’s just counting the years he and I have been married (i.e. even ignoring the dating ones altogether).

  4. Alice

    How interesting! I love your posts like this!

    Even though I was immediately going to college, I had VERY pronounced I’M DONE WITH SCHOOOOL feelings, which do now seem… premature. It probably helped make everything more sad/momentous because I went to a boarding school though, so while I personally was a day student, many of my friends were from other states and countries so we knew it was exceedingly unlikely we’d ever all see each other again, which seemed Incredibly Tragic at the time.

  5. Melissa

    I love these posts. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who tears up at the orchestra concert (and my child was a fourth grader – you’d better believe it wasn’t the beauty of the music making me cry). It’s just so amazing that these kids are working hard, and are SO MUCH BETTER than when they started in August! And the music teachers care SO MUCH! I’m worried that if I get that sentimental at the music concerts, I don’t stand a chance by the time graduation gets here.

  6. Suzanne

    Oh I love this. (Extra favorite bits: “ritual rituals” and the part about the sagging arms and the band concert detour at the end.)

    Congratulations, Rob! Congratulations, Swistle, and Thistle family! *throws cap into air, dodges pointy corners*

  7. el-e-e

    You articulate so well why I cry at things (dumb things, my kids might say, like summer camp pickup and the Closing Program last Friday)… “looks at us doing our formal human things!” Yes, exactly that!!! Congrats to Rob!!

  8. Kara

    My oldest child is going into 8th grade, so I’m a few years away from graduation. I remember my own graduation day. It was so HOT. Like blazing heat, not a cloud in the sky. So hot that we (my family) made the last minute decision that only my parents would attend the ceremony and my younger siblings were relieved. The ceremony was way too long. The Valedictorian was going to Harvard and she made sure EVERYONE knew it in her speech. Senior activities were curtailed my year, because the year before had gotten out of hand and a bunch of them showed up drunk to Senior Picnic and Senior Cruise. As as result, we didn’t get any of those activities offered to my class. Our school (and maybe others?) had the policy that seniors took their finals Memorial Day week, and graduation was the next weekend, so if you passed everything you not only got out before the rest of the school, you also didn’t need to take finals as a senior. We had a lot of snow days that year, so my brothers and sister were in school until the end of June while I was out in May.

  9. Shelly

    Congratulations to Rob and to you. You did it!

    I am also glad to know I am not the only ones who is excessively leaky. Every kid performance, national anthem, underdog win and I’m trying not to embarrass myself while slyly wiping away tears. So it’s also good to know there is hope for me at something like my own kid’s graduation.

  10. Sara

    I get teary at music concerts for the same reason ya’ll do…but Formal Rituals do not faze me in the least. I bawled my eyes out at a horse-riding show recently when I hr kids on the horses presented the colors and the national anthem played. I was thinking about our country and feeling patriotic and then remembered that some people in this great country are trying to take health insurance away from citizens and I sobbed for that too.

  11. Kate

    I cried just READING about you crying at a child’s band concert. THEY’RE SO EARNEST AND THEY ARE TRYING SO HARD.

    Congratulations, Rob, and congratulations Swistle and Paul, too!

  12. Tina

    I have a grown up son, and when he graduated from high school in ’07 it was very sad/happy for me. I also had my second child heading off to preschool that fall when he went to college. I am not a big sappy sentimental person, either…but you nailed everything- I get choked up for formal things as well- which is complicated by the fact that I work in school and have to hear/say the pledge daily among small children who mispronounce and recite things with so much sweetness….I can hardly take it. This week we graduate the Kindergarten class that I am working in and they will play that “Somewhere over the rainbow” tune with the Hawaiian singer that they played when my daughter had her K graduation and I MUST NOT CRY!! somehow- but I don’t know how I will accomplish that. She will be “graduating” from 8th grade the next evening (when my son was in that grade she was a newborn!)

  13. BRash

    I want to know about graduation announcements and graduation gifts. I’ve gotten a few announcements before and taken that to mean in supposed to send a gift, but what kind of gift and how much….I have no idea.

    1. Swistle Post author

      So! I have only shaky information on this, which does not mean I will not go right ahead and answer! And I will also send you to the comments section on this post: How Much Money to Send to a High School Graduate.

      I take graduation announcements on a case-by-case basis. If it is, for example, a child I used to babysit a lot, or someone who for whatever reason I feel sentimental about and/or fond of but not particularly close to anymore, I love the idea someone people mentioned in the comments section on that post about writing a check for the year of graduation: $20.17 for this year, $20.18 for next year, and so on. In years where we didn’t have that to spare, or for graduation announcements where I don’t really know the kid, I send a card/letter of congratulations, with sentimental memories if applicable and general best wishes if not. I am not yet sure what I will do for my niece and nephew, but I have some time.

      We didn’t send out announcements for Rob, because it seemed like sending out requests for gifts.

      1. Britni

        Yes it is basically a request for gifts. I am saying this based off the fact that I did send them.
        I think it is a lovely idea to do $20.17 etc if you can afford it or to just send a congrats card which lets the grad know “yes we received the announcement, we recognize your achievement, and we will not be sending cash”

    2. Shawna

      That is definitely not a Thing where I live (Ottawa, Canada). I’m a photographer and every spring I see links to articles on social media about how to take good senior portraits, and every spring I am once again surprised to discover that the articles are not about how to photograph senior citizens. You’d think I’d learn, but no, apparently a year is enough time to forget again every year.

      I suspect that this is because we don’t call our high school years by the same names as you, so here a kid in grade 12 is.. a kid in grade 12. We don’t use the term “senior”.

  14. Grace

    Loved this post from the very beginning! I was ready to comment as soon as I read “light on the pomp, minimally-required circumstance.” Ha ha! Can I just hire you to say All the Things?

  15. Ruby

    Congratulations, Rob!

    At my own high school graduation, they had two students (the class president and the student body president, if I recall correctly) read the names. We were supposed to talk to them directly if they mispronounced our names at the rehearsal, and there were around three hundred graduates, so I’m sure there were MANY mispronunciations. (The rehearsal was also, like, two days before the ceremony, so that was the amount of time we had to track them down and make sure they got the correct pronunciation.) That seems like a terrible idea looking back on it, but I guess it worked out alright.

    In college, we all had to fill out a little card with our full name and a phonetic pronuciation. (It was up to the students to define what “full name” meant to them–some people omitted middle names, and I had one friend who put her middle name as her first since she was called by her middle name almost exclusively.) When it was almost our turn to walk, we handed the card to a helper person standing off the side, then they handed it to the person reading the names right as it was our turn. It was an efficient system, but OMG can you imagine if the order of the cards got mixed up somehow and the reader read the wrong person’s name???

    One more thing! (My apologies if this comment is turning into a novel.) At my high school graduation, they didn’t give us the actual diploma when we walked across the stage. Instead, we got a little diploma-holder type thing with a blank piece of paper where the diploma would go. We got our diplomas after the ceremony, when we turned in our rented gowns. This served two purposes: 1) it made sure we remembered to turn in our gowns, and 2) it made sure we all behaved during the ceremony, since they could withhold our diplomas if we didn’t!

  16. LeighTX

    Glad you made it through with a minimum of tears! My own daughter graduated last year, and I had dreaded that day for no less than one full year. I was fully prepared to have an ugly-cry embarrassment of tears during the ceremony, but as it happened I had a full-on meltdown on the floor of my closet the night before (I can’t even remember what prompted it) and by the day of graduation really had no more weeping left in me.

    So I heartily recommend the Night-Before Closet Meltdown method; two thumbs up, will try again for 2nd daughter’s graduation in 2020.

  17. M.Amanda

    Congratulations to Rob!

    I was one of those kids who didn’t want to participate in all the senior activities. No parties, no pictures, no jewelry, no memorabilia. My parents stopped short of letting me skip the ceremony, which I found excruciatingly boring and cringey. I don’t regret skipping any of it. Whether I’m a weirdo is up for debate, some days more than others, but I’m pretty happy with my life.

    1. Swistle Post author

      This is what I’m very much hoping: that this is just How Rob Is, and that I am right to let him Know His Own Mind.

  18. Corinne

    Oh, honey! (If we were sitting together I would put my hand on your arm.) I totally cry at band concerts too! And, I have the kind of face that pulls into an obvious crying expression. I can’t just silently leak tears. Usually what stops my crying is the effort I’m making to keep my face neutral and not terrify everyone around me with a rictus of tragedy.
    Congratulations, Rob!

  19. Kalendi

    Congratulations Rob and Swistle family! Very exciting!
    Oh yes, I get weepy at some of the same things, and since I don’t have kids it’s for friends’ kids etc. I remember the readers and how hard they worked to get people’s names right (high school my name was easy, college not at all, but they were read correctly!). Also diplomas weren’t given to us at the time either, I think we had 500 people in our graduating class and that would have been hard to organize, plus if they waited they could make sure we actually finished all our requirements and paid fines etc. I actually finished all my requirements and everything in February, so I had to wait until June to get my diploma, but I have no regrets at all for missing senior stuff! Rob probably won’t either.

  20. Cassie

    It is weird for me to read this. Aren’t you about my age? My 20th high school reunion is next weekend. Then I realize, I could have grandkids right now. If I had gotten preggers right out of hs, then that kid would be 19 right now. That kid could have a kid of their own. I mean, whoa.
    On a similar note, with the big two-oh coming next weekend I am wracked with anxiety about to go/not to go. How do you overcome?

    1. Swistle Post author

      So far I have overcome by not going. For the first few reunions I was wracked with uncertainty, but now what I like is to see other people’s pictures posted to my high school graduation year’s Facebook page, but not actually go myself!

  21. Dr. Maureen

    ” I expect to resolve these worries in one direction or another by the time he is my age.”

    Swistle, you are my favorite.

  22. Abigail

    I LOVE these posts. I feel really lucky that you’re about 13 years ahead of me in childrearing (my oldest is 5) so I get to read your reassuring wisdom of experience on each stage before I reach it. Can’t wait for the “what it’s like to have a child get married” post!

  23. Alison

    About skipping the senior stuff: Went to my prom literally just so I wouldn’t regret not going. It was fine, but I left early and honestly didn’t really think I would have regretted not going. I was thoroughly Meh on the whole thing. Based off that springtime experience, I avoided all other senior things except the few things that were mandatory or basically mandatory due to family expectations. No senior night, no theme park trip, no extras.

    I reminisce, fondly or otherwise, about senior year of high school approximately never, and I definitely don’t feel like I missed out on anything. No regrets!

    Rob gets two thumbs up from this internet stranger for Knowing His Own Mind. :)

    1. Alison

      PS: My 10 year reunion is coming up, and I can’t make it due to work. I did have a thought of “Will I regret not going?” Pretty sure the answer to that is “nope.”

  24. Sarah!

    As a band teacher, I enjoy reading about how moved you all are by band concerts! ;) I love seeing how PROUD families are of their little babies for tooting their way through Jingle Bells, so it goes both ways!

    Also very glad that graduation was, it sounds like, an overall success. If it helps, I went to our “all night grad party” and hated the entire thing. So. Probably nobody will remember that he didn’t go to all the things, in about 3 weeks. Especially him.

    1. Anna

      I too regret going to our all night “Senior Spree.” It was expensive and packed with activities that I did not care for (go karting??). My straight laced friends and I were not going to get wasted, we would have had more fun with a sleepover!

  25. Missy

    Congratulations to Rob!

    I am from the Wisconsin/Minnesota area of the country and just recently found out that graduation parties/open houses are not common in other areas of the country! Here they are a HUGE deal! Most high school graduates have a party at their house and invite all their friends, parents friends, family, neighbors, etc. Parties typically start Memorial Day weekend and some are as late as end of June.

    I am a ceremonial crier too! Made even weirder by the fact I am not really a crier at all. But any kind of school event, there I am dabbing at my eyes. My kids school has a monthly assembly that parents can attend and they hand out citizenship awards for kids (for being respectful or helpful) – and their little proud faces when they go up to get their award gets me every time.

    1. Jenny

      @Missy I’m from Iowa and I, too, just found out that graduation parties/open houses aren’t a thing everywhere! Ours are basically the same invite list as a wedding. I suppose it seems kind of silly to people where this isn’t the tradition, but it is kind of nice.

      On another note, congratulations to Rob! I can’t believe that you have a graduate Swistle :)

  26. Tracy

    Some random thoughts:

    Rob’s classmates being more than congenial about taking pics – of course! They’ve grown up on their parents’ facebook, and have been taking selfies their whole teen life – pose for a pic is just standard in their life!

    Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never been to a graduation where the graduates tossed their caps! I had thought that was just a movie-legend type of thing. But I went to private school and our graduation was in a Cathedral (and really other than siblings, I hadn’t attended many graduation ceremonies). My niece’s high school did it, and I just so happened to catch it on video. They said: “Blah blah, class of 2017” and they all stood and tossed their caps. Heh, talk about weepy-eyes, and this wasn’t for one of my own offspring! I’m like you, I get weepy at anything symbolic (and I totally feel you on seeing the kids in band lift their instruments in synchronicity).

    I too worry my kids, particularly one, won’t do a lot of the “stuff” associated with senior year. But then I recall that I didn’t do a lot of the “stuff” either, and I really didn’t want to (didn’t see the point or whatever, not really sure). Although I suspect they just keep adding extra events/”stuff” each year anymore. Sidenote: One of my kids just graduated from 8th grade and holy moly they sure know how to drag it out!

    Like you, I was impressed with how the in memoriam was handled at my niece’s graduation. There were two deceased classmates (77 graduates) and one had passed just the summer prior to senior year. Perhaps the cruelest age. The other had passed prior to high school (K-12 rural campus school). One set of parents were there and my guess is they were parents of the student who had died less than a year ago. It’s horrifying. How the speaker kept it together, I’ll never know.

    On the flip side, I was also teary-eyed at an unplanned standing ovation given to the 4 members of the class who are moving on to military careers.

    Gosh, I’m teary-eyed typing this…

  27. liz

    Do yourself and Rob a favor and have him write the names of the folks in the pictures in the picture file name, or on the back of the photo if you’re printing them.

    Sincerely, this will be a help in 30 years when he’s showing them to his graduating senior.

  28. ernie

    Wow, I get sentimental at some commercials, but didn’t at my son’s high school graduation last year . . . but that is probably because my 10 year old was tossing balls to my husband in the yard two hours before graduation and the ball took a bad bounce. It knocked out my husband’s front teeth/bridge work from a childhood injury. We were hosting a huge party celebrating the graduation and the first communion that was taking place the next day for our youngest daughter. I was wishing my husband had come in to help me prepare for the party- then he came inside with his teeth in his hand and blood all over his face. He raced to the dentist – who stuck the teeth back in the gaping hole in his mouth. My husband sat at graduation with a bag of ice on his face. In all the pictures from the eventful weekend and our family trip to Glacier National a few days later, he has scabs all over his lips. The significance of the graduation kind of escaped me. I guess you could say I was driven to distraction!

Comments are closed.