By the time the Abbey’s headmaster got to the graduates whose names started with an “M,” my feet were bloody stumps. I thought I’d be fine in two-inch sling backs, but an hour into the ceremony, my toe knuckles stung rawly and the pointed heels sunk into the grass under the enormous tent.
I got up from our reserved row of seats to get a better vantage point to take photographs. Our motley crew of relatives — sisters, aunts, grandmothers, an uncle, a cousin, and my husband who had already spilled coffee on his tie — had all come to see our son receive his high school diploma. We were essentially the same as the other families seated around us, but somehow, I felt like our family was different.
The Abbey was our son’s third high school in four years. Our Navy family was required to move after his 9th grade year at an army barracks high school in Germany, to an inner-city public school in Florida, and finally to Rhode Island where our son finished his senior year at the Abbey, a local boarding school. We were surprised when our son was accepted to the school as a day student, and we were elated when the school offered us enough financial aid to make it affordable on our tight military budget.
At the Abbey’s pre-season football camp, our son made his debut as the new senior. He was quirky, husky, and lacked the personal hygiene skills necessary to keep up with the school’s strict dress code. A sort of “nutty professor” type.
In past schools, our unusual son was received with mixed reviews. In Germany, the students saw him as smart and uniquely funny — someone everyone wanted to know. In Florida, he was perceived as odd, and after two years, he did not manage to make any real friends. Would the Abbey’s wealthy, preppy boarding school students be able to look beyond our son’s sloppy appearance and odd demeanor to appreciate his distinctive sense of humor and extraordinary intellect? Only time would tell.
Throughout the year, we had mixed clues to our son’s reputation at the Abbey. The football coach smiled widely when speaking about our son; however, the English teacher grimaced when describing the “odd British accent of questionable origin” our son employed when reciting poetry. The students and faculty reported that he “stole the show” in the winter musical; however, of the four boys our son invited to our house for his April birthday party, only one showed up.
“Emily Magnifico,” the headmaster called and several students stood to cheer on their graduating friend. As I wobbled on painful shoes up the rows with my camera, my mind raced with random thoughts. These students have had four years to bond. Our son wasn’t here long enough to be understood.
“Sean McDonough,” I heard with more applause as I inched closer to the stage.
Has our military lifestyle robbed our son of the opportunity to form close relationships with his peers? Does he think that it’s his fault?
“Julian Minondo,” emanated from the loud speakers as I raised the camera to my eyes with shaking hands and waited for my son’s name to be called.
“Hayden Clark Molinari,” I snapped the shutter, frantically catching glimpses through the viewfinder of my son making his way through the crowd of navy jacketed students to the smiling headmaster. In a fog of emotion, I could not coordinate the still images I saw with my eyes with what I distinctly heard with my ears.
I took the camera away for a moment and realized, they are giving him a standing ovation.
Students and teachers leapt to their feet to cheer for an unusual boy who had been with them for nine short months. Through the din of applause and shouts, I managed to take a dozen more photographs before bursting into tears.
Minutes later, the students spilled out of the tent, milling around in a sort of preppy mosh pit in the bright sunlight. Fighting the celebratory crowd, we found our son amongst the jovial graduates, slapping each other’s backs. He smiled broadly as I kissed his prickly cheek and thought, stay true to yourself and you will always be loved.