Warning: This one’s a bit long – over 2000 words.
Grad seems to be such a big deal for a lot of people. I wonder if anyone actually enjoys it. I wonder if anyone looks back and says they are glad it all happened.
There’s this one girl I know who tried her best to avoid being involved in the grad hoopla. She refused to sign up for the prom dinner.
Her principal found out she wasn’t buying a ticket and asked her why.
“Waste of time and money,” she said. “I just want out of this system. I can’t handle one more minute of it than absolutely necessary.”
He tried to convince her to go, saying it was important, saying it would be fun, saying she’d regret not going. He even offered to pay for her ticket, which, in 1985, was $50 for the fancy dinner and venue in downtown Vancouver. She told him she’d think about it.
It wasn’t that she didn’t have the money. She was a purveyor of plant products of the illegal kind, and other substances forbidden for sale in her country. She had money.
In the end, she decided to go, though reluctantly. She can’t recall if she ended up accepting her principal’s offer to buy her ticket or if she bought it herself. She does know she was increasingly stressed as the days toward graduation progressed.
She tried on dresses at the ritzy Holt Renfrew and found one she loved. It was a strapless, shiny little number, with a white corset-like top that flowed out into layers of pastel downward-facing tulip petals for a calf-length skirt. That one was a few hundred dollars. She saw the same ones at Le Chateau for less than a hundred. Maybe they were imitations.
Either way, she knew the dress was too fancy for her. Besides, she thought, there was no point in spending money on a dress she’d only wear once, for an event that didn’t move her in the least.
Ultimately, she opted for a $20 ivory cotton gauze dress. It was of 1970s vintage. It was unearthed at a Kitsilano consignment store on West 4th. The woman who owned the shop said the girl ought to wear black underthings beneath it because the boys would go wild.
That wasn’t going to happen. Boys would not care because they didn’t look at her regardless of what she wore.
Later that summer, some weeks after grad, she cut the dress into a crop top and a skirt to be worn separately, to get more mileage out of it.
There was a ceremony that bored her half to death. That consisted of sitting in a room behind a stage with a few hundred of her peers, wearing a square cap with a tassel, and a satin robe.
Why the outfit? What did it mean, other than heat and discomfort in the month of June in that hemisphere? She had no idea, but later heard it was a tradition started of necessity during the Middle Ages, when university buildings were unheated, and students needed robes for warmth. Some sources believe its roots go back to Druidic priests and Roman Catholic clerics, with something to do with trying to create a semblance of unity. She calls it unoriginality.
Whatever the reason, it seemed unnecessarily hyped up, and her preference would have been to simply walk out of the school building after her final class and never look back.
So, there was that ceremony. She waited till her name was called in the alphabetical list of hundreds of young adults. She walked out onto the stage to get her diploma, shook the principal’s hand, received obligatory applause, and returned to the back room.
Another uncool brick in the overheated wall.
During that week, there was a party at the beach. Everyone was under the legal drinking age, but they were all drinking aplenty. When the police showed up, the guy with whom she was talking said, “If they see us making out, they’ll leave us alone.”
Before she could say “Huh?”, the guy had her in his arms and was kissing her.
It worked. But even after the cops passed by, the makeout continued. The important thing was that the police left them alone.
Maybe the cops would have ignored them anyway and the guy:
A: was drunk
B: was sneaky and not to be trusted
C: had a crush on the girl, as one of his friends had said
D: all of the above
He wasn’t her type and it never went anywhere after that evening.
The next morning, there was a grad breakfast at the school cafeteria. Hundreds of underage hungover humans showed up to eat pancakes.
The week ended with the girl putting curlers in her freshly washed hair, readying for her pre-selected “date” to pick her up (thanks to her best friend who was part of the committee who pre-selected those dates based on things like height. Her buddy wasn’t aware that the guy chosen for her friend was someone with whom the girl had shared a mutual disdain ever since they were in grade 4 together, as she had gone to a different elementary school than her friend. By the time she told her, it was too late to rearrange.)
The guy was on his way to pick her up in his dad’s car. The girl’s long blonde hair was still damp when she took the curlers out. She fluffed it up as best she could with hairspray and went out the door. She was happy to hear Dire Straits music in the car.
“Right on! You like Dire Straits?” said the girl.
“Yeah, they’re a great band. I have all their tapes there.”
He pointed to a cassette case and she saw them all in it, even the latest one at the time, Brothers In Arms.
The guy was redeemed in her mind, but still they listened in silence.
Their first stop was the high school, to gather with their class in the gym for photos. The zoo of grads were lined up on bleachers – the young women on one side, the young men on the other.
Click. Click. Click. Photos were shot for the high school yearbook. Then the grads were free to leave. Some hung around for other photos. Some never showed up at all, choosing instead to meet in a park for clandestine consumption of alcohol.
Their next stop was an hour away in downtown Vancouver. More Dire Straits tunes played, pulled out largely by Mark Knopfler’s fingers on his blue guitar and the musical skills of the rest of the boys in the band totaling beautiful sounds through the bars of a rhyme. Mark’s soulful voice spilled out words to make the absence of conversation comfortable.
The Commodore Ballroom was all set up with fancy linen on the tables and fine food for the meal. Stuffy and uncomfortable it was for the girl, but she sat through it. A moving speech by one of her classmates was heard, 1980s music she didn’t like was played, dancing might have occurred but she paid no mind to it, and then it was time to go.
Her grad partner wasn’t driving back to their hometown right away, though. He was headed straight to the roller rink in Richmond for the grad party.
The girl caught a ride home from one of the vice principals and his wife. She wished that instead of the six-pack of pear cider she lugged along unopened in her backpack she had had the forethought to bring a change of clothes for the party. At the time, though, in her preparations, she was not aware that her date would not be bringing her home after dinner.
Every time they drove over a speed bump in the parking garage, the bottles clinked suspiciously. She tried to squish them together with her feet to reduce the possibility of sound, but the clanging persisted. If the folks in the front seat noticed, they didn’t say. Like the drive with her grad partner, the drive home that night was also without conversation.
Once she got into her house, she madly searched for comfortable clothing. She fished out a pair of red and black leopard print cotton leggings and a big T-shirt from the washing machine – items that would dry quicker than jeans – and put them on their own into the dryer. Her older self would soon learn that wasting electricity on two items like that was unwise, but she was still young and (more) foolish.
Time was running out for her to catch the last bus to Richmond, so with clothing that was not quite dry, she dressed, slung her backpack onto her back, and ran as fast as she could to the bus stop a few blocks away.
She made it in the nick of time, only to learn from the driver that he was headed back to the bus garage for the night. He would not be going through Ladner, where she would need to connect with a bus to take her to the roller rink. The best he could offer was to drop her off on the side of the highway by a Richmond hotel just before the Oak Street bridge that led to Vancouver.
She was the only passenger on the bus. She sat up front and chatted with the driver. They were familiar to each other from previous trips. He didn’t seem to notice or mind that she was chugging pear cider while they drove. He wished her well as he dropped her off on the side of the highway half an hour later.
The girl climbed over a chain link fence and down a grassy hill to the hotel, where she phoned for a taxi.
When she arrived at her destination, she bumped into a few people from various crowds, none of whom were normally part of each other’s circles, but all of whom had a fine enough time sitting in a car smoking weed together and drinking their respective alcoholic beverages before heading into the roller rink.
For most of the evening, the girl sat at a table like a mafia drug dealer, quietly observing the dancing bodies on the roller rink floor, sometimes being joined by people she barely knew.
The music, which was mostly 80s songs she didn’t like, was too loud for conversation, other than by yelling, so she avoided communication unless necessary for business.
Her best friend was off with a boyfriend at the time. The guy the girl herself hopelessly liked for the past few years was avoiding her, as usual, and her other buddies were younger/older/ and therefore not in her grad class.
She was running out of mind-altering substances to be sold, and so the price went up as people vied for what was left. She knew it was unreasonable, but they were willing to pay. They were people who weren’t her regular customers. She figured they must be desperate for mind-alteration. Maybe they were as disillusioned with an existence as presented by twelve years of prison-without-bars as she was.
After the roller rink closed, the girl and a few people she barely knew – for she barely knew most of the people with whom she spent all those years in classrooms – went to Denny’s for breakfast. They had camaraderie until she walked away alone. The sun’s first light painted the sky with shades of rose as she waited for the bus.
The best part of grad week was conversation with another girl she had hitherto only vaguely known. They talked with great depth for the next hour on the bus ride home, finding that they shared a lot in common. They parted with a mutual “I wish we’d gotten to know each other better all the years we spent in that wretched school system.”
They are still friends to this day, thirty-three years later. But who knows – they might have gotten to know each other some other way, too.
The girl wishes she would have not bothered with any of the grad hullabaloo. She has never actually used the word “hullabaloo” out loud, but it seemed to fit with the ordeal. She would like to say she instead stayed home and watched Benny Hill reruns and read books that night – books of her choosing because she loved to read and not because a teacher assigned them to her.
She would like to tell others that if they don’t want to participate in grad events, they should follow through with their desire and do what they’d prefer.
Go ahead and be uncool. It’s cooler than being cool.
Epilogue: Two years later, the girl came to know and believe that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, died and rose again, to pay the price to unite her with God forever. She is cool in God’s eyes and that is what ultimately matters.