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Life Matters: Avoiding the graduation blues

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By David Whitlock

It can happen to you most any time and any place; all that's required is a stuffy auditorium filled with graduates in caps and gowns, a principal or president or superintendent who directs the program with boring predictability, speaks in a monotone voice with a staccato cadence, and of course, a guest speaker, who is prone to talk long after most have stopped listening.

And then, quite suddenly in the midst of this, you are overcome by the graduation blues.

It's happened to me, in lesser or greater degrees, every time I graduated. I thought with my last and final degree I had certainly earned perpetual immunity to this strange and mysterious malady. But, alas, it struck me again just last week when my oldest daughter graduated from Eastern Kentucky University.

In what seemed like a nanosecond, the blues enveloped me, time traveling me back to every crowded auditorium where I had once sat just like those graduates did that day last week, transporting me back to Altus, Okla., carrying me down to Waco, Texas, lifting me to Ft. Worth, thrusting me miles and miles from there to Princeton, N.J., and finally depositing me in Louisville, Ky.

It was the same scenario in every graduation ceremony: the anticipation of the event, the slight nervousness just before my name is called, the excitement in holding the diploma, then the deflation as I step down and walk back to my place, and finally, the uneasiness, the angst, as I sit down.

What causes this? I thought about that as I watched each graduate walk across the stage last week. I felt for them, entering this uncertain economic climate, a climate with stiffer competition for fewer jobs, and even if they plan for graduate school instead of immediately entering the job market, there is the reality of no longer being at the top but orienting to a new program filled with unfamiliar faces and unknown ways.

In each seat in that auditorium, there sat a person facing doubts and fears about themselves and the world around them. A chapter of life closes, washed over with memories of friends who will move on. Even though they can reconnect in many ways, it is never really the same.

Anxiety about an uncertain future disconnected from friends only submerges us further into the deep freeze of the graduation blues. The fear is that all the fun that is to be had is gone. As Jenny (Carey Mulligan) says to her headmistress in the 2009 movie "An Education," "If people die the moment they graduate, then surely it's the things they do beforehand that count."

But, as Jenny painfully learns, it's not. Graduation day is a milestone, but not the end, certainly not of an education, which should continue for a lifetime. Graduation may close one chapter, but it opens another, and another and another. In fact, every day is in some way graduation day.

The graduation blues are not all bad; they do serve a purpose: by forcing us to slowdown for at least a moment, we can reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're headed. It's OK to shed a tear - or even two - as we, diploma in hand, glance back at the stage. Yet, we can be happy. We can, after all, step forward; we do have control of our lives, at least most it; we can walk boldly and confidently into the future, knowing we can make a positive contribution.

The cure for the graduation blues lies in embracing them and realizing that we are what we choose to be, that every tomorrow has its own opportunities, and we don't die the moment we graduate.

Next week my youngest daughter graduates from high school. As she walks away from the platform, I will look forward with her to a hopeful future that's promised to none but possible for all, a future filled with possibilities but not certainties, a future we can shape but not control.

And as I do, I will be thankful for everything, including the graduation blues, even as I wave goodbye to them.