A STORY OF HONORABLE MENTION IN THE GRADUATION CONTEST
by Carol Marchi
“To thine own self be true,” I said, my words deliberate and earnest, words I had come to believe were my own creation. Then I scanned the auditorium one last time and lowered my gaze.
It was a triumph. The audience of nearly 300 roared its approval as I concluded my valedictory, and I prayed they’d never stop. As the applause dwindled, our high school principal stepped up to the weathered podium. His head was bobbed up and down, as if he were saying “Yes” over and over again. His head always said “Yes,” even when he was suspending a student for smoking. People said that he suffered from St. Vitus Dance, which I though an odd name for an infirmity.
“Carol, your 94 classmates join the town fathers here before you, your family and friends, in saluting you tonight. You’ve made us proud.” Fresh applause. I smiled and nodded my thanks to the crowd. “We know you’ll make a wonderful teacher, so all the best from your home town. Please don’t forget us.”
Clutching my three pages of typewritten text, I stepped down from the podium and returned to my place, careful not to stumble over the microphone cord in my new white pumps. I took my seat, flanked by the American flag on my left and the Massachusetts flag on my right and crossed my legs at the ankle.
I glanced down from the stage at my parents, who were holding hands and grinning in the front row. M ymother leaned over and kissed my father’s cheek and then nodded to the well-wishers nearby. From my angle, it was hard to see her whole face, just her bright red mouth. Maybe she should have placed that hat farther back on her head. It was the same navy blue straw hat she always wore to church in the spring, revived for this occasion by a bunch of yellow silk posies.
My dad wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, pulled from the pocket of his blue and white seersucker suit, which was making its first appearance of the season. Only Bill, my 12-year-old brother, was scowling as he leaned back in his folding chair, tugging at the collar of his shirt. Brat, I thought to myself. He could sit still just this once. God, I just hate his Howdy Doody freckles.
The 20-piece school orchestra began to squeak out a pastoral piece, its violin sectioned diminished by the absence of graduating seniors. I closed my eyes and tried to figure out what tune they were playing while I absorbed the full aroma of the roses on a stand near my feet. I had never seen a bouquet so big before, except maybe at a funeral.
And suddenly I realized that it was over. My fifteen minutes of fame. The sentences of my valedictory address echoed in my head… “This day is not just an ending but also a beginning.” “Know thyself.” I had used words like “embark” and “life choices,” “courage,” “honesty,” “values,” and “journey.” My speech had been powerful, astonishing, and I was in love with myself. For a short time I had been Sophia, Socrates, and Shakespeare all in one, wise beyond my seventeen years. I had credited all our parents for their diligence in raising all of us and had praised the town’s fine school system for the education that had prepared almost half of us to go on to college.
At that moment I even believed I was pretty, a light sweep of face powder dusting my shiny nose and a coat of Tangee brightening my pale Irish lips. I patted the white mortarboard that sat like a crown on my head.
Well, even if I wasn’t pretty, I was smart, and they adored me.
Carol Marchi, a native of Massachusetts, has lived in California for the last 40-plus years. After some years teaching high school English (and the glories of expository writing), she is semi-retired. Now she does the writing she really loves to do--about her transition from the East Coast to the West, the family she left behind, the one she gained, her travels with her husband to England, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Turkey, and the challenges and delights of being a "senior."