Graduation Day

The morning of graduation, I went over the day’s instructions with Nate. I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to hack it for the three hours it would take to get from the start of lining up for the processional to the end of the ceremony and return trip to Bouck Hall. Having called the college office, I knew Nate could bring his iPad to keep him occupied. I also arranged for a classmate and fellow graduate, the lyrically named Sarah Dancer, to be Nate’s marching buddy.

Yet, with all that preparation, of course Karen and I were slightly panicky that he’d lose it, perhaps make  a scene. Once, maybe 8 years ago, we took the kids to a dress rehearsal of Glimmerglass Opera’s presentation of Good Soldier Schweik. It was a sparsely attended mid-week afternoon run through of a modern, boring piece of work. In a  particularly quiet moment, Nate yelled, “When is this dumb thing going to be over?” (How’d he know what I was thinking?)

So things like that were on my mind as we pulled into SUNY-Cobleskill. Karen dropped Nate and I off. It was nearly 10:15 and we were instructed to be ready and present promptly at that time. As Nate and I walked towards Bouck, I asked him where his iPad was.

“I left it in the car.”

Calmly, and on purpose, he decided he didn’t need this particular crutch on this particular day. We paused for a moment so Nate could get on his mortarboard and robe. Up ahead, a group of graduates were hanging around so we joined them.

“This is like The Graduate movie of 1967. Do you have that?” I loved the reference to one of my favorites. I wondered if Nate would get that movie, if he connects at all to the very real frustrations of growing up and becoming disillusioned. He lives in a world where his dreams are never punctured. At least I think he does.

I took a few pictures before I saw some students leaving our area. We followed and, it turned out, we’d been in the wrong spot. On the other end of Bouck were two long lines of Bachelors and Associates. Nate joined the line of fellow Associate’s Degree recipients, his bare legs showing below the robe. True, he was informed that proper attire was required, but I thought that there was no way kids wouldn’t dress for comfort. So when Nate put on shorts and a Santa Monica t-shirt, I didn’t think twice.

I hovered about 10-15 feet from the line, figuring I would stay until the procession began. At that point I would beat a quick path to my seat. Then, I saw Sarah. I was worried when I saw the two separate lines that she was a Bachelor and wouldn’t be allowed to stand with Nate.

“Hey!”

“Is Nate getting an Associate’s Degree?”

“Yeah.” I was ready for this shoe to drop. “Are you?”

When she said yes I was relieved beyond measure. We had to reshuffle the line a bit, pulling Nate out so he and Sarah could stand together at the back. With that, I could become another parent, get to Karen and Joey, and watch the proceedings.

Cobleskill is an ugly campus, a hodgepodge of cement structures that scream function above form. But from below Bouck, in the bottom of a bowl shaped field, it looked beautiful, most of the buildings out of view and the surrounding hills standing out in die cut precision against a backdrop of a solid blue sky. The lack of  clouds lent another level of surrealism to an already unbelievable day. Raising Nate was never so clear, never without turbulence and storm.

Karen had found us a spot in the fifth row behind graduate seating that must have numbered close to 600. I’m not a very good estimator. In front of where the students sat was a long white lattice fence with the Coby logo hanging in the center. Though I was mostly at peace with Nate under the watchful eye of Ms. Dancer, I was concerned on how he would get through the boring speeches and long list of student names.

On the top rim of the field, we saw the students marching in and, typical of our constant luck and good fortune throughout Nate’s life, he ended up in right in front of us, in the last row before parent seating began. There was no need to be nervous. It was obvious he could handle this. Sarah, to Nate’s left, looked from a distance like Elise, Nate’s aide who almost made it through the three years of college until she had a baby last month. By the time the first speaker hit the podium, Elise had arrive and was sitting with us. It was her first outing away from her son, but she wasn’t going to miss this day. She’d been in it from the start.

An hour in the conferring of degrees began, with, thankfully, the Associates going first. We watched Nate’s row get in line. Sarah went before Nate, handed her name card to the announcer and walked across the stage to get her diploma. There was Nate, very close behind, leaving no space between them. but doing fine, handing his card over to the man behind the mike.

“Nathaniel Edward Katz.”

And there he was, walking slowly, clutching his clear plastic bag that contained various graduation information. When he received his diploma, he said something, but we’ll never know what it was.  I didn’t cry then, but I am now. What an incredible achievement. Sure, for us, who slogged away for the last 19 years, but more for Nate, who did it. He did the work, he put in the effort, sometimes putting up a strong fight but, eventually getting down to business and reaching this milestone. Joey was at stage right, in the designated photo area, snapping away.

On the way back to his row, Nate got a little lost. In the nick of time, Joey met up with him and pointed him to his seat. The now graduates were instructed to move their tassels from right to left, and Nate couldn’t do it. I watched him search all over the square top of his cap, but, small as the area was, he had trouble. Karen was standing nearby and reached over to help him out.

Now that Nate was done, I headed to the bathroom. While I waited on line for the Port-a-John, I was pleased to see all the Facebook feedback on the pictures I’d posted of Nate. When I came back, Karen and Elise were in tears. I began to think back to that early 1993 Chicago day, similarly sunny, driving my 1990 Acura Legend–the car we bought when we realized Nate’s arrival made our two-seat Toyota MR2 ridiculous–onto the westbound Eisenhower Expressway fromCongress   Parkway, to our first appointment at the Center for Speech and Language Disorders. There, Nate would be diagnosed and undergo twice a week therapy for the next decade.

My Sony Discman was playing the new Paul Weller CD. Weller had always been a favorite of mine, dating from when he was in the British punk group The Jam, and then the soulful Style Council. That was in college, not even a decade earlier, when everything looked bright and hopeful, with not an obstacle in sight. As Weller sang, “I was looking there for something, some things have no meaning,” I drove westward, towards an unknown future. Now, almost 20 years later, we were smack dab in that future.

On our way to the post-graduation reception at Bouck Hall, we ran into Linda, the elderly woman who had served as Nate’s test-giver. She loves Nate. I met her for the first time a few weeks ago and as she recounted Nate’s successes, the gifts he was given and the things that were taken away, her eyes reddened as she grew teary. Nate has that affect on people. He’s unforgettable. She handed Nate a gift, a sketchbook. Nate’s first reaction was negative, as it usually is, but he quickly said, “I’ll use this for my Alpha Folks drawings.”

Inside, we stood on line for cookies and punch. One ex-professor of Nate’s, who has a hyperlexic son, came over to speak with us. Then we saw Lauber, Nate’s teacher/adviser/guru/fan. Grit stood out, as always, a black leather biker chick holding her bright orange helmet with Apple logo sticker affixed to the back. Lauber s going to be part of Nate’s life, and ours, moving forward. That’s very clear.

“This is just the beginning,” she said. And it is.

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About Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.
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