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A Rite of Passage, Done Right

It took courage and grit to survive a school system that wasn’t designed for her. So we skipped the pomp and circumstance and celebrated a graduation day as unique as Lee.

One year ago, my husband and I went to our niece’s high school graduation. We sat on a hard football bleacher near my sister-in-law, who was glowing in the late afternoon sun. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I shifted in my seat. Next year, it would be my turn, and the thought made me anything but ecstatic.

About 600 students stretched out, in narrow lines of crimson red. I found my niece and pictured Lee there, in the middle of a row, at the back of the field. A spark of anticipation was instantly doused by an ADHD reality check. Lee could never sit still in the hot sun wearing a long robe, with a big cap anchored on her head.

My sister-in-law leaned over and said, “Are you excited for next year?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know how Lee is going to do this.”

My husband added, “Lee doesn’t either.”

“But wouldn’t you be disappointed if she didn’t walk?”

[Self-Test: Sensory Processing Disorder in Children]

As the principal addressed the graduating class, I thought, would I? Not if sensory processing disorder (SPD) caused her skin to crawl under the heavy robe, or if ADHD made her body buzz, drowning out the ceremony.  And how would I feel if anxiety forced Lee to bolt off the field?  Not excited, that’s for sure.

As I listened to speeches given by the valedictorians who had excelled in academics and those who stood out for other bold achievements, I realized they would mean nothing to Lee. She’d been in special day classes all four years, never took an interest in athletics or clubs, and had been absent nearly half of her junior year with severe anxiety.

“Pomp and Circumstance” came roaring out through the loudspeakers as the graduates tossed their caps, screamed with joy, and ran off the field. It was good that Lee wasn’t with us today. The noise and commotion would have given her a massive headache on top of the dizziness and nausea she always felt while trapped in a crowd.

And there was my answer, as plain as day. I would be disappointed if Lee felt forced to participate in her high school’s graduation ceremony. I’d be disappointed in myself for not acknowledging that I had a special child who deserved a unique celebration. It took courage and grit to survive a school system that wasn’t designed for kids with ADHD, SPD, or anxiety. The more I thought of honoring that accomplishment, excitement started to build.

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One year later, 30 family members, friends, and teachers sat around our back yard eating lunch at tables decked out in Lee’s high school colors. Vases filled with white roses, mums, and lilies sat on top of green linen tablecloths. Green and white balloons danced overhead to soft jazz music and laughter. Lee’s smile lit up the garden as she bounced around in her graduation robe, chatting with her guests, a flower lei around her neck.

After lunch, heartfelt speeches were given, ending when my nephew, a recent college graduate, stood up. He held Lee’s graduation cap in his hands, and motioned her over. I’d guessed right a year ago. The cap hadn’t lasted on her head for more than five minutes.

“Congratulations,” he said, putting the cap on her head with a flourish and giving her a hug. “In honor of everything you’ve accomplished, you have now graduated from high school!” He turned the tassel on her cap from right to left.

Everyone broke into applause as she threw her cap into the air. We watched as it soared high, on a path all her own.

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