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My Graduation

April 18, 2014

The Boys and me

The Boys and me

Ron and me in our caps and gowns

Ron and me in our caps and gowns

Me in my cap and gown

Me in my cap and gown

            Everyone looks forward to their graduation night, especially those of us who don’t really care for school in the first place. I was one of those students. I never really cared much for school. Actually, I take that back. I didn’t care for school after the sixth grade. Kindergarten and the first six grades were mostly fine, sometimes they were even fun. We had parties for every holiday. We celebrated students’ birthdays. I had a good amount of friends. I was smart for an elementary school kid. I got good grades, for the most part. Fourth grade caused me some problems. I didn’t like one of my teachers and rebelled at the expense of my grades. A good spanking and being put on restriction by my parents encouraged me to change that course back around, however.

            Junior high was a different story altogether. I must have been used to coasting. I was smart enough in the earlier grades that I didn’t have to study. When things got more difficult, I didn’t really care to do the work. Anyone who knows me knows how lazy I truly am. Added to my lack of initiative when it came to studying were the bullies. Seventh grade was the worst year of my life. I spent the entire year with a group of guys in my homeroom who used to encircle me and make up rap songs about me, making fun of my thick glasses and what not. Needless to say, junior high sucked hard.

            By the time I got to Terry Parker Senior High School, as it was called when I started going there, I was content with doing just enough to get by. I just wanted to get out of there. Some classes I enjoyed, most I did not. I had a limited social life. I had a few friends; no dates. I worked at Winn-Dixie after school most weekdays and every Saturday. High school was ho-hum. I was already in a rut in my teens. I was looking forward to graduating; getting high school behind me and starting over in college.

     Our graduation was to be on June 7, 1993 at the old Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Our graduating class consisted of about 400 (396 to be exact, I’ve been told). I was near the bottom of that graduating class. My graduating GPA would not be high enough to graduate with now in the state of Florida. See what I meant about “just enough to get by”?

     On Graduation Day, prior to the big event, my best friend, Ron Hubbard, came over early so my mom could take pictures of us in our caps and gowns. Ron was walking at graduation with Tim Rahn, my oldest friend. I was walking with Kelley Riffe, my best female friend. Soon after Ron came over, Tim showed up. Then Chip Dennis and Bryon Daughtry showed up. The two of them were walking together. Chip and I had been good friends since sixth grade. Daughtry and I had been friends since seventh grade. The five of us posed for a photograph together in my sister’s bedroom/nursery, which had been converted from our living room after my nephew was born. Chip and Daughtry said their goodbyes, and Tim, Ron, and I were off to pick up Kelley before we headed to the coliseum downtown.

     After exchanging the pleasantries with Kelley’s family, we headed to the coliseum. It was raining pretty hard at that point. Most of the L.A. Looks gel that I had slathered in my hair in preparation for the greatest night of my life had now gone to waste. Now my hair was all wet and slicked back. No biggie. I was going to be wearing a cap anyway.

     Then came the ceremony. It was a long, somewhat boring ceremony, as most graduation ceremonies go. It was warm in the coliseum with those caps and gowns on. It was June in Jacksonville, which is like August on the equator. August in Jacksonville is like the waiting room to the sun. Needless to say, the heat and humidity from outside, especially after the rain, was not handled well  by the air conditioning in the large, domed, 70’s- era coliseum. There was a speech, followed by another speech, followed by another speech, and so on. I’m sure that the words “future”, and “stars”, and “success” were used in most, if not all of the speeches given. I honestly can’t remember any of them at all. It was all just prelude to me getting that diploma. I was getting anxious, and I wasn’t the only one. Kelley was getting anxious as well, “Oh lord. Hurry up,” she whispered to the speaker of the moment. It may have been the valedictorian. Who knows? I responded with the affirmative, “For real.” We goofed around and made jokes quietly during most of the ceremony to make it seem to go by faster. It only worked for so long.

     Finally…they started calling the names! Kelley and I were pretty far back, so we still had a while to wait, but we were finally on our way to getting our diplomas. At graduation ceremonies they ask the family and guests of the graduates to please refrain from cheering so that everyone’s name is heard. That usually goes out the window by the fifth name being called. Some receive riotous cheers from their loved ones, some get a smattering of applause, some get none. I fell into the latter category. We Bushes just don’t go in for those kinds of displays.

     I walked up the stairs of the stage to get my diploma, trying to concentrate on not tripping on the stairs, or on my gown, or over my own feet. My heart was racing, pounding harder with each step. It nearly made its way into my throat before…Success! I made it up the stairs to get my diploma and to shake the hand of Stan Jordan, the longtime school board member. I was so nervous. My palms were so sweaty; nearly dripping, I’d wager. I hope old Stan had some Purell on him that night. Come to think of it, after all of the sweaty palms he touched, it might have been a good idea for me to have had some Purell too. Then, it was time to make it down the stairs……Cautiously, I gingerly stepped one foot in front of the other down the terribly high and dangerously steep stairs. My heart pounded all the way down as well. I had the slightest feeling of vertigo. They weren’t really high or steep. They only seemed that way at the moment. Walking down stairs is always worse than walking up them. I don’t know why I was so nervous walking up them. This was the real white-knuckle moment. Finally, after what seemed like minutes, I made it down the four or five stairs, off the stage, and to safety, and finally, after what seemed an eternity, I was a high school graduate.

     We made it back to our seats while waiting for the remaining graduates’ names to be called. Soon afterwards, the final name was called, the final diploma was given, and the words rang out over the loudspeaker: “The Terry Parker Class of 1993!” The vast majority of us hurled our caps high up into the coliseum air, despite being told not to hurl our caps high up into the coliseum air! Many more sweaty palms were shook. Many hugs were exchanged. Ryan McDermott came up to hug me and he was crying. It was a joyous night! I spoke to as many people as I could to wish them well, knowing I would not see most of them ever again. This was a blessing in some cases, not so much in others.

     Graduations are bittersweet in that way. You have almost your whole life ahead of you, which is cause for celebration, but you leave so much behind, and things will never be the same. Life gets more complicated, not less. At some point in the life of every high school student, the worst thing in the world is a zit. Or it’s that a certain girl doesn’t like them, or that a certain boy doesn’t like them, or it’s the humiliation of having to ride the bus instead of having their own car. Oh, to be as young and truly carefree as that twenty years later!

     Eventually, my family made their way down to the coliseum floor and found me. Hugs and handshakes were further exchanged. It was almost time to go, and preferring to spend my graduation night with some of my family who had come from North Carolina for my graduation, instead of going with my friends, I was catching a ride with my parents.

     Ron’s and Tim’s parents had apparently gotten them a couple of hotel rooms at the beach for a post-graduation party. Being a non-drinker, and not caring for such juvenile frivolity, I had opted to forego the all-night party with my friends and spend the rest of the evening with my aforementioned family. I had no regrets. Ron and Tim made one last effort to get me to go with them. I declined. Everyone began making their way to the exits. I was walking with my parents to the steps that led down to the parking lot. My aunt and uncle, my grandparents, and my three sisters had already left. My parents had hung back only because they were taking me home. Otherwise, my dad would have already left the premises. He was not known for his patience. As I began my walk down the outside steps to the parking lot I saw Amy Teague. I wanted to tell her goodbye. We weren’t the closest of friends, but I had known her since sixth grade and thought I would tell her goodbye since I might never see her again. I asked Dad to wait just a minute while I went to talk to her and I called to Amy. She stopped and we talked for a moment. I don’t remember if we hugged or not, but I doubt we did. I then turned to go back towards the parking lot.

     I couldn’t see Mom or Dad, so I figured they must have walked on to the car and were waiting for me there. I walked faster than both of them and shouldn’t have had any trouble catching up with them.  I walked in the direction they had been walking, looking for the 1988 Hyundai that I had crashed on my mom’s birthday the previous year (Oops!), but had no luck spotting it on that side of the coliseum. I found that a bit…puzzling. I walked through the parking lot, not seeing it anywhere. I decided I might have a better vantage point if I walked back up the steps towards the coliseum. I walked back up and looked out in the direction where I thought the car was. No luck. So, I began walking around the coliseum, looking in the different parking lot sections from on high. As I would make my way around every curve of the round building I kept expecting to see their car. My temper began rising with each wasted step. I fumed more and more as my search became more and more futile. I walked all the way around the coliseum. I never saw their car. My parents had forgotten me at my own graduation!

     It hardly needs to be said that I was pissed. Actually, I was highly pissed! They knew I was going home with them! I asked Dad to wait! They took off without me anyway! “Seriously?!! What the hell?!!!” If anyone had heard me, they might have been concerned, however there was no one around, not anywhere! I had spent so much time searching for my parents that no one was left at the coliseum. It was just me.

     I made my way over to the pay phone between the coliseum and the bar, and dialed for the operator. I had no money on me, plus I was pissed, “I’d like to make a collect call, please!” The operator dialed the number for me. It rang a couple of times before Mom answered it, “Hello.” “Did you forget something?” I asked with the angry intensity of a Grand Inquisitor. “What?” she said, totally clueless. “Me!” I bellowed back. “Uhhhh………” was all she could come up with. “Goodbye!” I yelled as I slammed the phone down. I then set out on my way to walk across the Matthews Bridge.

     At the time, the Matthews Bridge was all metal, or at least, mostly metal. Supposedly, a lot of cars would slip and slide on the metal when the bridge was wet. The bridge was wet. It had rained again while we were inside for our ceremony. It was so steamy from the Jacksonville June heat combined with the rain. Walking across that damn bridge, the humidity made me feel like my clothes were being pressed with me in them! And I’m not sure if it’s a common thing when you’re walking across a bridge, because I’m not in the habit of walking across them, but the bridge shook with every car that went across. That might be just a trait for metal bridges, but that damn bridge shook every time a car would pass me. Luckily, there is a wide enough sidewalk separated from the driving area by a railing. Large, metal beams prevent you from falling off the bridge and into the St. Johns River on the other side of the sidewalk. I was safe and secure in my walking. That constant shaking was a little unnerving however. The other unnerving thing was the car with two creepy guys that pulled up alongside me, stopping on the bridge. “Come on, man! Get in the car! Come on!” “No! Don’t stop on the bridge!” I yelled at them. I had to yell a couple of times before they would move along, preventing any accidents from occurring on the shaky, slippery structure.

     It took me a while, maybe 30 minutes or so, before I got all the way across the bridge. When I was near the end, a couple of girls whom I graduated with, Noemi Ortiz and Stacy Carbajal, saw me. They stopped after clearing the bridge and pulled over into the grass, waiting for me. I began walking past them. “Rob! Rob! Come on! Get in!”

     “No! I’m walking home!”

     “Why are you walking home?” Noemi asked.

     “My parents left me! At my own graduation they left me! I’m walking home!” I kept walking. Noemi slowly drove alongside me as I walked along the grass leading up to the ramp, towards the University Blvd exit. Then Stacy, who I didn’t really know, but had only seen around school (and who I had always made a point of staring at) said, “Will you please get in? We can take you home. And if you want, you can go to a party with us.” I just thought she was really pretty, so I got in the car. I’m easy that way. Noemi drove me home, and the three of us walked into my house. As soon as I saw my parents I got pissed off again and started to yell at them, “You left me at my own graduation! I asked you to wait one minute! One minute!”

     “We thought you were going off with Ron and Tim,” they tried to defend themselves.

     “I already told you that I wasn’t going anywhere! Multiple times! I told you I wanted to spend the rest of the night with y’all!” After blowing my top, I began to calm down. I felt a little relieved, but also a little embarrassed about blowing my top in front of Noemi and Stacy, and yelling at my parents was not a terribly common behavior for me. Had it not been for the situation, Dad might not have been so keen to let that slide.

     “I’m going out to the beach with Noemi and Stacy. I don’t know when I’ll be back.” My parents, feeling a little defeated, and possibly a little guilty, did not argue, and I left. The rest of the night is kind of a blur. I remember going to a hotel at the beach and meeting up with some fellow graduates who were drinking in a van. I did not partake, but instead just kind of observed. Stacy wanted to go swimming at one point so I escorted her to the pool. She didn’t have a towel and to get to and from the pool you had to walk through the lobby of this hotel. I, still wearing my steamy, sweaty shirt, pants and tie from graduation, carried soaking wet, bikini-clad Stacy in my arms through the hotel lobby, back to the van. Unfortunately, nothing happened. We left not long after that. I must have gotten home around 1 or 2 AM. My mom, who claimed to not be able to sleep if we were out of the house, was there waiting when I got home. “We sent Julie and Sandy to find you after you called,” she said.

     “Whatever,” I responded, and I went to bed a hot, sweaty, and pissed off high school graduate.

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