As of this writing, Ben will graduate from high school in four days. On the one hand, this doesn't feel like a big deal — he, and most of his close friends, will stay in the city for college and continue to live at home, so it's not that different from being promoted to the next grade. On the other hand, of course, it is huge. In important ways, this ritual marks the official end of his childhood, and of his emotional dependence on his father and me.
We have already begun to relate more as fond friends than as parent and child. He is teaching me music theory, and, less successfully, to download movies and retrieve them on the TV against the day when he moves out. He keeps us informed of his comings and goings, but no longer asks permission to stay out late or crash at a friend's. This is as it should be—if he were to go away to school, he would need to navigate the physical and social environments without our input; he deserves the same chance at home. What we want for him, and for us, is connected independence, and he is on the road to achieving it.
But I am flooded with memories of his childhood, of periods I wish I could travel back and experience again. And I have also been reminiscing about my own high school graduation, and contrasting it with his very different experience.
I graduated at the height of the Vietnam war. Student moratoriums and protests, long hair and open drug use, had pitted students against faculty and, often, against parents. Our class declined to have a prom, declaring the tradition a sexist, bourgeois abomination; instead, we donated the money to John Lennon's campaign to end the famine in Biafra—a hugely worthy cause, but also a nose-thumb to the adults who nurtured fond memories of their own proms.
The chair of our music department ordered us to learn and sing our school's anthem, which, for reasons I can't remember (and an Internet search yields nothing) we felt was fascistic and war-mongering. Dire consequences were threatened for anyone who didn't participate — so we all remained mute, daring them to flunk the entire student body. We attached Xeroxed peace signs to the tops of our mortarboards, which remained undetected until we threw them up at the end of the ceremony, at which point many in the audience stood up and booed. We were lucky to escape mass fisticuffs.
Ben's class had a prom; some kids went and some didn't; some had dates and some went in groups; and not much else was said about it. The class voted to sing "In My Life," and Ben was asked to write an arrangement that he and three other musicians can play as accompaniment. Everyone seems happy about this as well.
It isn't that these kids aren't passionately political — at least some of them are, though the politics are more diverse than in my day, and divided less rigidly by generation or SES. But they seem better able to separate politics from personal feelings; to forge friendships across what felt to us like war zones; and to maximize fun even in less than ideal conditions.
This seems like a huge improvement to me. Whether that is the case or not will, I guess, be seen as they move out into the larger world, in just a few more days.