My oldest son, Brooks, is graduating fifth grade this week. We cannot gather in the Junaluska Elementary gymnasium like every class before him. He and his friends cannot congregate at the entryway or on the lawn for a group photo. The students can’t hug teachers or principals or say a final good-bye to the school. Instead, we’ll be participating in a drive-in graduation and waving to school staff and classmates from afar.
To commemorate this important time in his life, I created a slide show with all of the photos and videos I’ve collected throughout his time at Junaluska. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve dug up hundreds of pictures and extracted video clips from old computers. While doing this, I’ve learned several things.
When Brooks was a kindergartner, my mom was still alive. I remember calling her with giddy excitement after his kindergarten screening. With him being my oldest, the right of passage to start school felt emotional and paramount. She was the first person I called and the one by my side during all of his kindergarten programs and ceremonies.
Two years after his first day of kindergarten, my mom passed away from cancer. In fact, Brooks missed the beginning of second grade so we could travel to South Carolina and spread her ashes at the beach where I spent my childhood summers.
When Brooks was in third grade, his dad and I separated. I bought my own house in Maggie Valley and started working full-time at The Smoky Mountain News. At night when my boys went to bed or when they were at their dad’s, I worked furiously to make my Maggie house feel cozy and happy.
As a fourth-grader, Brooks’s dad remarried, introducing a stepmom and stepsiblings, as well as a move away from the family home. The boys had already been struggling with the loss of the family unit, but this new phase crystalized the realization. Brooks’ teachers and the school counselor helped with these transitions. They kept a keen eye on him to ensure all was well.
In November of Brooks’ fifth-grade year, I published my first book. As we drove to school that morning, we checked the UPS tracking number to see if the shipment would arrive that afternoon. When I picked the boys up from school, they couldn’t wait to help me open the box of freshly printed books. The original idea for the book stemmed from a conversation during car line at Junaluska. We’d been listening to an NPR address on the Paris Agreement and after a conversation with the boys, my youngest son asked, “If we keep putting more and more trash on the earth, will she fall from the sky?” That one question spawned the book’s plot. In effect, the book would not exist had that school-ride conversation never happened.
In March of Brooks’ fifth-grade year, the world was hit with a pandemic and everything was canceled. This included his final school dance, yearbook signings, a fifth-grade trip to D.C. and an AIG trip to Space Camp.
The familiar route to Junaluska Elementary over the past six years has been soothing to my heart and psyche. The drive to the school fostered thousands of conversations between the boys and me. The drive away from the school offered quiet reprieve for my own thoughts and sometimes, tears.
Not only has my child changed and evolved from kindergarten to fifth grade, but I have changed and evolved as well. Our life is vastly different now than it was when my little five-year-old walked into Junaluska for the first time. We’ve been in our Maggie house for almost three years. Their dad has been remarried for over a year, and the boys love their stepfamily. We honor my mom in many ways, although nothing would compare to having her back on earth.
With many things and people shifting, Junaluska Elementary was a daily constant, a consistent force for my boys and me. The staff at the school became a second family to Brooks during a number of life-changing events. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Now, as Brooks transitions to middle school, he’s a much older, mature child. He’s physically and mentally strong with a wise, clear mind. He’s achieved many accolades during his time at Junaluska, and I am so proud of him. While I wish we could celebrate with a traditional pomp and circumstance, the lack of fanfare does not diminish this achievement, for him and graduates of all ages.
I remember reading the following quote, “There are two things we should give our children: One is roots and the other is wings.” Whether your graduate is a preschooler, kindergartner, fifth-grader, eighth-grader, senior or college student, these are all pivotal years and should be honored.
To all the graduates out there, use your roots to stay grounded and your wings to fly.