I’ve been in school for over twenty years straight. That translates into millions of words read and written, hundreds of math problems solved (usually incorrectly), dozens of science experiments attempted, pages and pages of Latin and Spanish homework translated, and the occasional field trip to the Mississippi Petrified Forest or the local prison, depending on the class, of course. My entire life’s rhythm is structured around the academic calendar, and now there’s just one more event on it: graduation. The very last graduation from the very last school. With most of my assignments complete now, I have a little time to sit and think about the journey it has been, from the toddler who asked her mama to make up homework for her so she could be like her first-grader big brother to the graduate student just finishing it all up on a wing and a prayer. I’m reminded of something I read in one of those classes–Mrs. Kutcher’s 9th grade English, to be exact. “As I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning….” Mr. Lorry told a friend in A Tale of Two Cities. “My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep…”
In all these remembrances, one theme keeps cropping up to hold them together: I did not get here by myself. I could not have gotten here alone. The only reason I can celebrate finally catching the elusive, mythical creature that is graduation is that a lot of people who loved me very dearly– more than I could ever deserve or understand– have walked with me from the very beginning and made sure I got safely to the end. I want you to know that I have seen you. You have mattered to me and to my life. I am unspeakably grateful for you.
I am grateful for my mama, who showed up at countless Parent Teacher Nights and junior high dance team halftime shows in her Kelly green scrubs because being there on time to support me was more important than running home to change after a long day at work. Despite her workload and raising two kids as a single mother for six years of our lives, she spent her evenings coming up with mnemonic devices to help us remember memorization assignments for school, which is why every time I hear the end of Psalm 23 read aloud to this day I picture her telling my brother, “Just think of it as three little puppies, Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy, who follow me around all the days of my life.” (She has a gift, my friends). She knows all of my teachers’ names and whether I liked them or not and why. She can tell you my best friends, favorite movies, and biggest stresses from any given age because she went above and beyond to be there, ask questions, and really listen to the answers. She let me come home early from summer camp when I didn’t want to be thirty minutes from our house for the week, and she helped me pack and settle in to my dorm room where I spent four years at a university eight hours away. Once I overcame the homesickness that made camp such a miserable failure, she sent me to Europe, Asia, and Latin America; meanwhile, she’s still patiently waiting to take the trip to Italy that she and my stepdad have been planning for over a decade. Hers is a sacrificial love that puts any seminary class lecture on the subject to shame. More than anyone else in this world, my mother has fought for me. Her love is my greatest strength, something I have never doubted, something that has made me stronger than I would’ve thought possible. It’s amazing what you can do when you know your mama loves you.
For my stepfather who has been on my team from the moment he met me, a gooby ten-year-old in enormous glasses answering the door for my mom’s blind date. His is the voice that comes to me when I need comfort, quoting Scripture or C.S. Lewis or Rumi. He collects these little pieces of beauty and wisdom from across time and culture and geography, and he carries them around in his pockets, ready to press them gently into the hands of the people he loves whenever we find that we need them. He gives me the words I need to grasp what it is I’m feeling, and I treasure these little bits of hope that reassure me that someone gets it–two someones actually, both the one who wrote the words in the first place and the one who knows me well enough to share them at the crucial moment. Perhaps the thing that means the most to me, though, is the way he bookends these conversations with the reminder, “I am for you, and I love you.” Te voglio bene, we say to each other in Italian–the phrase “I love you” literally translated as, “I want what is good for you.” Thank you for being my Chuck.
For my big brother and little sister, each overflowing with humor and talent and and charm. They’re so different and yet so similar in their incredible human magnetism. In their own ways, they both command your attention, but in a sense that is somehow disarming and endearing. You would think two people with as much energy and life as they have would pull all the light in the room, but instead they refract it like a prism, colorful and inviting.
Ellen’s laughter is contagious, and she has the most incredible creative eye for making something beautiful out of junk–literally, this child can dumpster dive like a champ. Despite being a year older than her, I still remember feeling so intimidated by this cool, funny, confident bundle of strawberry blonde curls and freckles when our parents first introduced us as ten and eleven-year-olds, respectively. After just a few play dates together, though, I knew this was my baby sister. I announced this to my mom and immediately began asking after every date if Chuck, Ellen’s dad, had proposed yet so we could be sisters. (In retrospect, I was probably not the best wingman my mom ever had. Sorry about that, but, eh, it all worked out.). She and Chuck are how I know that biology can only offer a woefully insufficient definition of family, because shared DNA could not possibly make her any more my sister than she already is. I am so proud to be her big sister.
Everyone had a crush on Joseph the star quarterback growing up (and they told me about, in detail, a lot. Ew.), but somehow all that popularity didn’t translate into being too cool for his little sisters. That’s a pretty big deal for a teenage boy, a population prone to general angst and agitation. Despite a few run-ins of the threatening my boyfriends variety (still sorry about that, Austin), he was always there for me, my partner in the trenches of childhood from the beginning. In a journal my mom kept for me as a toddler she wrote about overhearing a conversation between us when I was about 3 and he was 5 or 6. I wanted a toy or something from another room, and Joseph jumped up to get it for me, “I’ll get it, Boo. Cause I’m your big brother, and I take care of you. I’m always gonna take care of you.” He’s done a pretty good job so far, doing his best to set a good example and make it clear that I’ve always had a bodyguard on call if ever I should need one. Not to mention, in high school, his one comment that underage drinking was really uncool did more to keep me on the straight and narrow than all the parent and teacher warnings about my sensitive, developing brain and how a DUI could keep me out of college ever could. Legal shemegal, if it ain’t cool, it ain’t happenin’, man. Thank you for keeping me out of trouble, big brother.
For my teachers and supervisors who invested in my life, not just my grade. They challenged me and nominated me for things I wouldn’t have been brave enough to try alone. Not everyone gets to go from nursery to elementary to junior high, high school, college, and grad school all with educators who care enough to clip newspaper announcements about you and mail them to you with notes of congratulations and to let you cry in their offices on occasion. I had people who paid enough attention to know when to cut me some slack because I was trying my best and when to call me out when I needed a reality check to push harder. I had years of classrooms headed by incredible men and women, including a Chemistry teacher who taught by the 1.3.9 rule: in a year we should remember a lot of Chemistry, in 3 years we should at least know something about moles and molecules, and in 9 we should remember something real about life. I’ll admit I know an embarrassingly small amount about Chemistry today (which was never my favorite subject in the first place), but I remember clearly that he was one of the first people to put me in a spiritual leadership position by asking some friends and me to lead the evening devotional when we chaperoned the junior high rafting trip as high school seniors. He was one of the first people to ask me to stand in front of a group of people and say something true about God. He and so many of my teachers and my internship supervisors weren’t just doing their jobs; they were living out their callings. In doing that, they taught me how to live out mine, too.
For my godparents who share their gifts in every way. I don’t know how my godmother’s tiny frame can support a her massive heart so overflowing with generosity, creativity, and whimsy. A former lawyer, she now spends her time investing in the homeless community of Memphis by sharing and receiving the gift of stories through a Writing Group. Her authentic and conscientious approach to life humbles and challenges me not to talk myself out of action or lull myself into a false sense of comfort with my own impact on the world. She, an author, spends more time with homeless men and women on a regular basis than I do as a social work and ministry student. I feel like I spend a lot of time studying about these folks and their lives; she spends a lot of time loving them. There’s a certain school of thought that claims that the poor are the gatekeepers to Heaven, sitting at Christ’s right hand, advising him about who has loved them truly and who has not. If that’s true, Ellen will have excellent references.
For the joy of grandparents, some of whom have loved me since before I was born, some of whom have loved me from the moment their children brought me into the family through marriage, and some of whom will be receiving big bear hugs when I first meet them on the other side of this life to thank them for the legacies they’ve left me. One grandmother is the wisest and most foolish woman I know. By her very presence she teaches me that the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, without a healthy dose of foolishness, wisdom loses its joy and turns cynical, a constant temptation in social justice work. She is jubilation embodied in a dear, huggable frame with a genteel southern accent and wispy blonde hair. Her love for you is palpable and irresistible. She has her own fan club on Facebook for heaven’s sake. The others may not be quite such internet sensations, but their love and prayers surround me and support me with a force that assures me I am part of something, a family of love. Some celebrated with my parents before I was born, others embraced me when marriage brought me late into their clan. Regardless of the timing, they have all lovingly claimed me, and I am so proud to be theirs.
For the love of my life. I know, I know, I am on the brink of some seriously embarrassing verbal PDA here, so I’ll keep it short. Words are too small anyway. Instead I’ll just be quiet for a minute and you will know that in that space are all the things too big for me to say about who you are and what you mean to me. The only thing that even comes close to expressing it is also the simplest and the truest: I love you. From the bottom of my heart, always and forever.
For friends who have hopped on and off of the merry-go-round of life with me, and especially for those who have stuck around for the ride. For the memories of making up dances to Shania Twain songs at sleepovers, practicing Ciara’s 1, 2 Step in the parking lot after school, learning the flips for swing dancing class over couch cushions stacked up on the living room floor… come to think of it, we’ve done a lot of dancing. I love that about us. You’ve been my prom dates, my trick-or-treating buddies, my college roommates, my class project partners… We’ve been through it all together in one way or another, and you’ve made me feel so deeply loved along the way. I hope I’ve told you what all those moments mean to me, how deeply you’ve shaped my life through them. Let’s get coffee and catch up soon, please.
For all of you, my family, both biological and self-proclaimed, who have prayed for and encouraged and guided me. I wish I could express to each of you the very specific, essential ways you have guided me, often without even knowing it. You have been and you are a warm place to call home, and I love you for that. There is no way I could name and picture each of you here, but please know that you are included. You are appreciated. I am thankful for YOU.
The saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, here I am. It feels official now: I’m raised. Thank you–with all of my heart, thank you– for being my village.