Will and Circumstance

Friday, our family watched as our son David entered Northrop Hall at the University of Minnesota to the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”. He and 899 of his fellow students from the IT school filled the lower level of the hall, which meant that the orchestra had to play the same 32 bars or so in shifts; first the organist, and then when he got tired, the brass section, and back and forth. It took almost two hours just to call out each individual for their moment of glory and brief stroll across the stage, representing the pinnacle of their years in school, and each receiving the cheers of their family as they crossed the threshold.

I looked at my son and wondered how he did it, and marveled at the will it took to graduate summa cum laude from one of the most well-respected universities in the nation.

The First Mate and I got married when David was almost ten years old, and at the beginning, David and I struggled. In describing stepfatherhood to others, I tell people that it was sort of like being the second Darren on Bewitched. You know you have the role, but all the ground rules got established before you hit the set, and you have about 30 seconds to learn them before you have to take the stage. We had our share of difficulties, but eventually both of us figured out how to live with and love each other. When I adopted David in 2001 at 17, it was nothing more than a recognition of reality — he could not have been more my son.

In some ways, that describes David’s relationship with education. He has always been a curious person, sometimes frighteningly so, as when he wanted to see what would happen if he plunged two wires into a bucket of water while the other end was plugged into an electrical outlet in his room. (I interrupted that experiment, thankfully.) He did well in science courses, but hated the rest of it with a passion only matched by his antipathy towards alarm clocks. It seemed like such a problem that I wondered whether he might be happier going to a vocational/technical school after high school.

That changed in his junior year, about the time he started dating Missy. He got more serious about school, and while he still didn’t enjoy his classes, he started making better grades across the board. His senior year was his best academically, and that was all the more ironic. Missy had an absolutely horrible pregnancy, and both she and David struggled just to get to school. She had to be on an IV daily for almost the entire pregnancy, and David got himself up early every day to take care of her, setting up the IV and waiting until she was ready to go before leaving for school himself.

That created an untenable position for the school’s administrators, apparently. We hadn’t heard a peep from them while he had ditched class and scored relatively poorly his first three years, but as soon as Missy got pregnant, they started siccing truancy officers on David — while he was getting the best grades of his life. Their teachers did their best to run interference for them, but the fools (the lightest word I can use to this day) in the administration harassed them to the point that they actually told us we could no longer call in for David when he was going to be late. It only stopped after a very heated phone call with the district superintendent, in which I explained at about 80 decibels that my next phone call would be to the local television stations to inform them that they were pressuring my future daughter-in-law to abort my future grandchild, which is exactly what this was all about.

I really wish I’d had a blog back then.

When it came time to go to college, both of them decided to take their time and get through the prerequisites at a local community college. It gave them breathing room while they nurtured The Little Admiral through the toddler stage. They followed their plans carefully, both of them moving to the universities at the same time. It took them six years to get their baccalaureates, but they never wavered for a moment in achieving their educational goals. And on Friday, I sat in amazement as the son that we had to push out the door to go to school at one point celebrated his amazing scholarship in one of the most demanding disciplines possible, as my wife held our sleeping granddaughter — much as we did for their high-school graduation when the Little Admiral was only three days old.

Through it all, both Missy and David willed themselves to success. People congratulate us on how well they did, but I’m not sure we had all that much to do with it. I think these two remarkable young people decided that they would succeed, and their parents had the great fortune to have front-row seats and play supporting roles in this amazing story. I’ve been telling them how proud we are repeatedly for the last week — hell, for the last six years — and I’m sure they’re sick of hearing it.

I’ll never be sick of saying it. Congratulations, my son.

When you do really well in school, they name plazas after you, apparently. At least, that’s our story and we’re sticking with it.

Here’s a slideshow of our celebrations for both Missy and David, complete with a small video clip of David’s walk across the stage. The music is “Blue Sky” by the Allman Brothers.