Last night I went to see some of my friends graduate high school. I had gone on a kayaking trip beforehand, and was completely exhausted, which meant that I ended up napping until it was almost too late to get myself to the graduation ceremony. However, I didn't want to disappoint my friends, so I quickly jumped in the shower and raced to my old school while my left boob got more and more soaked from my dripping hair.
I didn't miss graduation. Luckily, because it was the most epic graduation I have ever seen. So epic, in fact, that I might never have to attend another graduation ceremony again.
I graduated Northwest Academy in 2012, my senior class being less than 20 kids. The 2014 graduating class is even smaller, made up of 15 very unique and talented individuals. Many of them are my friends from dance class or from hangouts with their older siblings. I was proud to see them graduate, feeling like a big sister to all of them. Never would I have guessed the kind of show I would see, however.
The ceremony started normally enough. Normally, at least, for a Northwest Academy graduation. Everyone filed in, some with their faces full of acne, some with dyed locks, one clad in a kilt, and another wearing a long, black veil over her cap, covering her face completely, though it was obvious who she was.
The head of school, Mary Folberg, spoke a little about the class of 2014, and eventually invited another man up to speak, who would introduce the graduates. The man, Jordan Schnitzer (so you all don't forget who spoke), said how he had talked to the graduates a couple weeks before the ceremony in order to brainstorm some ideas for what to talk about in the commencement speech. Schnitzer said he asked the students how many of them had attended the class of 2013's graduating ceremony, and about half of them had gone. "Who was the commencement speaker?" he had asked. None of them remembered. "Ok. Well, do you remember what he talked about?" Schnitzer prodded. No, they did not. Of course they didn't. Schnitzer decided, because of this, that he would try to make his speech extra memorable. He did this by calling four students to the podium one at a time, asking them to tell the audience three things they liked about the school, as well as who their favorite teacher was. A couple of them were visibly shaken, and none of them had any idea they were going to have to make an impromptu speech in front of everyone.
After the four students were satisfyingly tortured, awards were presented. Let me say that this year's ceremony should have been called "Class of 2014 Awards Ceremony," not "Class of 2014 Graduating Ceremony;" not only were the members of 2014's graduating class awarded three different national awards that my class probably weren't even aware of, but they were also the recipients of two different awards from Northwest Academy that hadn't existed when my class graduated. 2014's graduating class were also honored with all the awards my class had been, of course, which means that altogether, nine awards were presented when only four had existed previously. When my old instructors granted the awards, I couldn't help but feel like an imbecile next to these students who were writing 58 pages of eloquent thesis material, creating robotic fingers that could pluck the strings of musical instruments, brainstorming ways to predict airline ticket prices, and dancing, singing, acting, and improvising beautifully on various musical instruments. One minute, I felt like a pretty multi-talented, kick ass individual, and the next I felt like a lazy, parent-mooching, almost 20-year-old who would never build a robotic finger that can pluck the strings of musical instruments.
After the awards were divvied out, I was exhausted. We were an hour into a 15-student graduation ceremony, and I was feeling more and more every minute like we needed a ceremonial intermission. But no. As they say in show business, the show must go on.
Next up were the salutatorian and valedictorian speeches. The salutatorian got up and gave a concise, charming, and well spoken speech about her classmates and her experiences at Northwest Academy. Then the first valedictorian, who had also received three of the nine awards, walked to the podium and gave a 20-minute long speech addressing everyone (in depth) in his class. He told them all what he'd miss about them, and how great they were, and then he addressed four others in the audience who he simply couldn't leave out. Though the whole speech was incredibly sentimental (especially for him, who usually pokes fun at and makes light of things and people), his speech ended on a slightly dark note. He made a metaphor for being young and having close friends from high school, something about being pulled along by a rope. "...and I hope we can keep pulling each other along until we finally just fade away." Fade away were his last words. If I have ever been witness to foreshadowing in life, this moment would be it. Fade away, fade away, fade away.
The second valedictorian gets up. He is one of the sweetest kids in that class, a National Merit Scholar, a musician, and an all around good human being. With a smile on his face, he made a joke about not being able to follow the previous speech, but that he'd do his best anyway. His speech started out excellently; he smiled, talked clearly, and made eye contact with everyone. Somewhere in the middle of his speech, however, he made a tiny mistake. I can't even remember what he did, maybe skipping over a word or a sentence. No big deal at all, and hardly noticeable. However, that one little mistake seemed to shut him down, and a minute later, his voice lowered, trembled, and he tried speaking the next sentence, again and again, never able to finish it. Over and over, he kept repeating the same three or four words, to the point where the first valedictorian offered him water and I got close to standing up and suggesting that maybe the speech should be over and he should just sit down and relax.
Nevertheless, no one did a thing except stare at this poor kid as he struggled. It got so uncomfortable for me that I checked my phone for a distraction, and when I looked up, plunk. Down he went, his head and arms bouncing onto the podium before slowly sliding down the side of it. "Help him! Help him!" yelled one of my former teachers behind me. Several staff members raced up to the front of the room, gathering around the fallen valedictorian to help him in any way they could. And then, just as quickly as he had passed out, he shoots up, and in a peppy voice, says, "Sorry about that, everybody!" The audience erupted in cheers, quieting only to hear him speak again. At this point, I really think the speech should have been cut short. But no, not at my school, because as they say, the show must go on, and it must go on the right way.
As soon as he began speaking again, his voice returned to that strange, low speech, and he was not able to finish his sentence before plunck, falling in slow motion across the podium, once again sliding slowly but surely down the side of it. The staff members again rushed around him, eventually picking up his lifeless body and carrying him slowly and solemnly out of the room. "Well, that is a surely a graduation he will never forget!" exclaimed Mary Folberg, before calling up the other valedictorian to finish the speech that had been so horrifically interrupted. As the first valedictorian finished the second's speech (because the show must, of course, go on, and in the right way), sirens from an ambulance yelled loudly in the background. The audience only pretended not to notice.
"He is in the ambulance, and everything is OK!" Mary said stoically after the last valedictorian's speech was finally finished by the other student.
At this point, I thought everything that could possibly happen had happened, but that would be a boring ending, wouldn't it? As the graduating class accepted their diplomas, there were dramatic hugs given, loud applauding from the audience, and an unveiling from the girl who had come in a long, black, wedding-like veil. Then, one member of the class was called up:
"Spring thesis title, 'The Outside of a Horse is Good for the Inside of a Man,' and fall thesis title, 'Finding Our Way Back to Wayfinding!'" bellowed my former english and humanities teacher, Paul Martone. She walked up, hugged Paul with wet eyes, walked to Mary to take her diploma, and as she turned toward the stairs to return to her seat, fell and tumbled all the way down.
"Ahhh!!" went the audience, simultaneously appalled and frightened for the girl. We were all emotionally taxed to say the least. And on that note, my dear friends, the ceremony was nearly over.
Shaken up, the class of 2014 moved their tassels on their caps from right to left, and threw the caps up into the air. Applause, applause. The fallen valedictorian returned, curly hair disheveled, cap removed, and robe unzipped, and the graduation ended. Just remember that foreshadowing moment: fade away, fade away, fade away.
Afterward, I called my best friend and boyfriend (separately) to blow off steam, and then drove home to meet two of my girlfriends for a girls' night. We talked shit, laughed, and interrupted each other, and then got a call from another friend about a party that was going on over at a previous classmate's uncle's house. An uncle who had married an Asian porn star, their photos scattered around the house, as well as many dildos and other strange instruments of sex and/or decoration.
And so that's how the night went, filled with dramatic speeches, girl talk, cigarette breaks, and strange houses with bathrooms that had black toilets instead of white ones. The night was strange, beautiful, funny, sad, happy, uncomfortable, and calming all at the same time.
It was definitely a night to remember, and a graduation to remember, for sure.
Lauren Greenfield: Greenfield is an amazing photojournalist who has documented girl and youth culture, and is also an accomplished director whose most recent feature-length film is one I loved, called, "The Queen of Versailles." Her work is always dynamic, touching, and revealing. Please go check her out. I hope you enjoy her as much as I do.