My youngest graduated high school a few days ago. Graduation Day was a long time coming and a day of mixed emotions for me.
The biggest emotions I felt on Graduation Day were love and pride. I love my son so much. He’s half of my heart and my world. I am so proud of all of the hard work my son has done while in school. As with anything he does, he has given his absolute best effort and worked really hard.
The graduation ceremony is often called a commencement. It’s a time when one period of life, such as high school, ends, and the next stage of life begins. For people like my son, it’s often been referred to as the day you fall off a cliff.
Why do some say graduating high school is like falling off of a cliff? Well, my son and many other people like him begin school at age 3. Under current laws, these students are generally entitled to an education until the age of 21. While a neurotypical student might go to high school until they are 17 or 18, our kids get a couple of extra years because it takes them longer to learn things. Then at age 21, our kids graduate and fall out of the daily routine of a productive society. The services and routines they have known all cease to exist and it happen literally overnight, so suddenly that many compare it to falling off of a cliff.
Here we have some day programs in our state, which I’ve mentioned before. Many of these programs reinforce educations skills, to a degree, and a few even strive to help build employment skills. Day programs are still closed here in New Jersey, leaving adults like my son with nowhere to go.
A few days before my son graduated the state of New Jersey passed legislature that would give students like my son an additional year of education, due to all of the services that were missed during the COVID shutdown. Bill S-3434. I had heard bout this bill and watched its progress carefully, knowing what it could mean for many. When Graduation Day arrived, I went to the ceremony hopeful, with S3434 not on my mind. Less than 10 minutes before the ceremony began I went into what I can only describe as a bit of a panic. I found myself wondering if we should try to take the extra year. If we were going to try to get the extra year it would mean he could not accept the certificate at graduation. I quickly spoke with the teacher, therapists and even the principal. And in the end, with literally one minute to spare, I decided to let it be and let him graduate.
I never thought the analogy of falling off the cliff would resonate with me. When I think of falling off of a cliff I think that a fall implies there is a bottom to fall onto. But upon further thought, I realized it’s the act of falling people have been referring to, not the actual fall itself. So now with day programs still closed and employment not an option for many, I now get it. My son asked to go to school the day after graduation. He loved school and it’s what he’s known for more than 20 years. I always thought we’d be able to move right into the net stage of life and have him in a day program where he’d develop new friends and new skills. Instead, he’s home. Waiting.
Waiting for what? I don’t know what specifically. Speaking generally, for the next stage of his life to begin. Hopefully day programs will open soon and we will find one that’s a fit that he likes. Until then, we’ll take it day by day and do the best we can to wait patiently and as productively as possible.
We graduated. We fell off the cliff. We did not hit the bottom. We are stopping the freefall and are walking away into the future, whatever that holds.
We have commenced.