It was a June evening in 1982, at Gray-New Gloucester High School. I zipped the flimsy graduation robe over my white and navy dress. I remember it was sailor-style; in retrospect a bit juvenile, but I was still more child than woman. I draped the yellow stole and the double-tasseled cord around my shoulders, then engaged in a lengthy struggle to pin the mortarboard to my slippery hair.

My parents and grandmother beamed while my grandfather snapped pictures of me in my graduation attire. Eyes hidden behind big-framed glasses, an embarrassed smile that showcased my braces, a goofy thumbs-up gesture – how dreadfully nerdy that girl now looks to my middle-aged self!

While waiting for the ceremony to begin, I thought back to the teachers who encouraged my interests in art, science and writing, and the circle of friends with whom I had shared both laughter and angst. I recalled the taunts of other classmates who saw in my shyness something to ridicule, and who had yet to learn the very grown-up quality of empathy. The rest of them I had known only casually, if at all.

I looked out over the crowded room, and it came to me then, with perfect clarity. All of them – good, bad and indifferent – were soon to be in my past. In a few hours we would scatter to the winds. I would never see most of them again, and in that moment I wondered why I had cared so much what they thought of me. Why had the rejection and bullying of some hurt and frightened me so much?

What were all of them, really, but a bunch of equally insecure, floundering kids, stumbling toward adulthood?

A smile brightened my face. It was almost over, this journey with the class of 1982. My scheduled, predictable school days were behind me. Another life was to open tomorrow.  The future was full of possibilities. It was both thrilling and scary to contemplate, but I was eager to see what was next.

I did not know then that the braces and the awkwardness, the glasses and the shyness, would soon disappear. The pain of being bullied would linger much longer, but in time it, too, would lessen. In a short while I would be running my own business, and later marry the man I adored from our very first date, and who loves me as no one else ever has. I did not know of the sorrows and troubles that would also come, as they come to everyone, or that I would find the strength to face those trials and still find joy.

In that moment, I, the girl in the sailor dress with the silly “hat” perched precariously on her head, knew only that I was not tied to this school, these fellow classmates, any longer. I was free. My life was to become much richer, fuller, and more meaningful in the years to come. The sad poignancy of graduation night would be eclipsed by the anticipation, and the discovery, of what was ahead.

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