This week you graduated from 8th grade. It was an emotional week for me, but not for the reasons others might expect.
I remember being emotional when your older sister walked across the 8th grade stage to receive her “most likely to be a best-selling author who inspires the world with her words” and “student of the year” awards just two years ago. I remember holding back tears when she told me to stop taking pictures before sending her off to the 8th grade dance. Not only did she feel too old to have me hanging so close, but she looked much too old for my liking in her fancy dress and heels. I was having to accept that she was much more her own person than she was my little girl any more. I remember being sad that her little group of friends, who seemed to her to be the most important people in the world, were all going to different high schools the following year. And the mom friends I had made through her middle school friendships would likely never be the same either. I soaked in every minute of that week- the medals and certificates, the final middle school beach trip, the many parent planned end of year gatherings- I soaked them in and I posted all about them on social media so everyone I knew (and even those “friends” I don’t really know) could share in the joy of my amazing daughter’s 8th grade graduation.
But Son, this week was emotional for me not because it is hard to watch you move on from 8th grade, but because it was far too easy. It’s not that you chose to skip out on the 8th Grade Dance or the final Beach Day that made this week hard- that’s not really your thing and I have no interest in making you fit a mold that you were never meant to fit. It’s not that there were no invites to end of year gatherings- I’d have been the first parent to host one if I thought that kind of thing was important to you.
I did not cry because of the multiple hours you spent creatively planning and then solving your 6×6 rubik’s cube- making it spell 8GD in an attempt to get that girl to accompany you to the 8GD (8th grade dance). The skill, thoughtfulness, and creativity it took for you to pull off such a feat makes my brain smoke and my heart soar. But her less than gracious response and the rejection you felt when the taunting on social media followed are likely what started my emotions on a downward spiral.
Then came the big 8th grade graduation and awards ceremony. You are not one to set a trend like KJ, lead the way like Hallie or steal the stage like little Lacey. In fact, unlike your three sisters you have little desire or need to be noticed or recognized- and while doing the right thing is supremely important to you, you are not especially interested in impressing or pleasing anyone else. But even though I knew that kids like you do not get straight a’s, perfect attendance, or Principal’s Awards, I still held out hope that your accomplishments this year would not go unnoticed. I know you are also not the most athletic, you probably will never star in the school play, nor would your quirky absent minded ways lend themselves to you being named “student of the year” or “most popular” -but I still hoped. I knew that you had not really connected with any of your peers, but still I hoped that someone would have seen the beautiful mind and kind heart hidden behind your quirky behaviors and unique interests.
But, alas, the only time your name was called was when it was your turn to walk across that stage to receive the same certificate as everyone else- acknowledging your completion of 8th grade. On that certificate was the obligatory statement that you were “most likely to be a famous mathematician.” While that sentiment was a fair assessment in my mind, I had to work even harder to hold back my tears when the first thing you did after the ceremony was share your disappointment with the idea of being thought of as a “famous mathematician.” You took note that all the other student’s obligatory “most likelys” seemed to you to be so much funnier, more personal, and more thoughtful than your own. After all, not only do you have zero interest in being famous, you also eloquently pointed out that there is no such thing as a “famous” mathematician- except of course among other mathematicians. You kinda knew that you were the odd kid who likes math, but now you were walking away from middle school with a certificate to prove it. And while I adore that odd kid who likes math, I too wanted your peers (and their parents), who never quite understood you, to know that there is so much more to you than that.
Certainly someone in those three years took note of the immense integrity or wisdom that you possess. Someone surely noticed the depth of your faith, the depth of your mind, or the depth of your kindness and empathy.
As often happens to me when my emotions take over- my mind started to spin. Laying in bed that night I couldn’t help but think about the hundreds of other kids who were also forgotten that evening. Every May, all over the country, parents and kids dress up and gather together to celebrate the achievements of a small number of exceptional peers. After fifteen years of working to advocate for kids who struggle in school, I was well aware that the low achieving kids did not get awards. And I was average enough in my time to know that the average kids don’t either. But I hoped that your perfect score on a PSAT at 13 or the fact that you completed two years of high school during your 8th grade year might just be exceptional enough to be “end-of year award ceremony” worthy. But turns out that what gets celebrated is not being exceptional. What gets celebrated is fitting perfectly in the school mold.
That night I thought of all the other moms who sat hopeful that someone noticed something “recognition worthy” in their kid, only to hear the same five or so names called to the stage over and over. Despite the fact that these same kids already received their due praise all school year long, simply for showing up to school each day and being who they were created to be. The rest of us are convinced we need to keep trying harder to be like those kids- you know the ones who are born good at school. Somehow someone convinced us that the kids who get the medals and the trophies are more valuable than the rest. I remember being the kid at the awards ceremony desperately longing to hear my own name called out, and I can attest to the fact that not being the trophy winner had no long term bearing on my success or happiness. I am certain that the same will be true for you and so many of your struggling, average and exceptional peers who also went home without an award. But it’s harder to remember that these days, because there was one huge difference when I was a kid- once Mom and I went home, we were free from the onslaught of visions of other children smiling with their awards, or their dates to 8gd or other end of school year celebrations.
Your last day of middle school was Friday. I’d watched all week as picture after picture had been posted on social media- pictures much like the ones I’d posted of your sister a couple years ago. Pretty girls in dresses and handsome boys in suits. Trophies and medals held out for all to see, and large groups of friends sharing in each other’s joys and accomplishments. Once the last day of school pool party pictures started to show up in my news feed, I felt another flash of sadness realizing that while your sisters were off celebrating the end of their school years with friends, at any moment you would be walking in the door with only your mom to greet you. So I did the only thing I could think to cheer myself up- I began to frantically look through my phone for any photos that I could post that would assure others that we were celebrating your graduation from 8th grade and proclaim to them all just how proud I am of you. But nothing I could find would ever come close to capturing how proud I am of you, and nothing could show the world how grateful I am to God for fearfully and wonderfully creating you exactly as He meant you to be.
And then you walked in- BEAMING! You greeted me with one of your full on hugs, excited to celebrate the end of 8th grade with me! We talked and laughed, played some video games and ate some junk food. You helped me once again to think about what is real, what is meaningful and what is eternal.
Why should I be sad that the world is missing out on knowing you? Should I not rather be grateful that I am one of the lucky few who gets to know you- that I am the lucky one who gets to be called your mom! Why should I be upset that it is impossible to capture your gifts or your value in a ceremony or social media post? Should I not rather delight in the immense depth of your brilliant mind and your kind heart. Why should I be downhearted that you have not found a place to belong among your peers? Should I not rather rejoice that you belong to God and that you belong in our family. Should I not be filled with thanksgiving for the way that you help to make our home a place where anyone can belong.
It’s about time for me to stop trying to tell the world how proud I am, and just tell you instead.
And while I am at it, I better make sure your sisters know how proud I am of them. I have a feeling I have been a little too busy editing pictures to make them look extraordinary, instead of celebrating who they have been created to be and teaching them to be content in the ordinary.
Congratulations on finishing 8th grade this year, Cade! Congratulations for being so far outside the box that there is no award or trophy that could ever adequately capture your giftedness or value. Congratulations on being the most humble, kind and intelligent kid I know. You will never know how much I love you, how much joy you bring me, or how much I learn from you. I am truly grateful that I get to be your mom.