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Growing up: A work in progress

Commencement ceremonies can have many uses. More than a mere marker of time, symbol of accomplishment, acknowledgement of senior-to-freshman backslide, or awkward red-robed photo op, last weekend's graduation (which I attended thanks to an ill-called coin flip) provided a meditative opportunity.

Between the speeches -- both sappy and snappy this year -- Mr. Martinez' cadenced listing of graduating students offered an ideal backdrop for thoughts on past, present and future to flourish.

I remember my graduation as one of those dreamy hazes. Exhausted from the day's sequential grad parties, I came to the ceremony in as ecstatic a state as anyone feeling decidedly out-of-body could. Everything seemed thrillingly rose-tinted: my friends and family, high school memories, the future beckoning promisingly from the other side of the DLHS's double doors (though the pinkish hue might have been a side effect from the sea of Laker red we were all doggie paddling through).

Inspecting the seniors on Saturday, I saw some who were just as obviously elated -- whether to be done with high school or to be wearing such a nifty headpiece I couldn't say -- while some seemed perfectly ambivalent to the hubbub surrounding them, and others appeared outright irritated with life in general.

As the B last names trekking across the stage turned to G last names shaking hands with administrators, I saw the same expression of invincible expectation I felt a year ago. I watched friends as they were handed spiffy crimson diploma holders and wondered who will look back on it in a semester, a year, five years and feel like those promised prospects were realized, and who will feel misled and disillusioned.

When Mr. Martinez hit the alphabet-within-the-alphabet of graduating Johnsons, I thought about how grown up my friends and I felt a year ago, carefully taking the steps to that same stage and praying not to trip, at least not before we escaped camera range.

It felt as though crossing that platform left behind 18 years of childhood and made us adults, with our own choices to make, successes to reap and failures to find meaning in, as though those few steps were the transitional period and our identities were forged between handshakes.

By the time the T-Zs were arising to await their announcement, I was in an existential crisis as to whether I'd even begun to fulfill the post-high school potential I'd imagined for myself, whether I was living out the precepts I set forth in my grad speech, whether I might in fact have a worse idea of who I want to be and what I want to do than I did a year ago at my own graduation.

It was quite a nutty night, even for those of us that weren't grad bashing (which sounds extremely dangerous, right?).

The other day, my dad sent Montana and I out to pick up all the sticks in our yard and move them out of the lawnmower's reach. Although a predictably tedious task, it isn't so straightforward as you might suspect.

The tricky part isn't deciding which sticks absolutely must be collected, but drawing the line and ignoring those tiny enough the lawnmower won't notice them anyhow.

Ready for the metaphor?

Growing up can't be measured with a yardstick (or, for that matter, with a yard twig, branch or bough). There is no formula for figuring out when a twig becomes a stick (or a child an adult, a student a teacher, a sucker a lollipop), and it certainly isn't a matter of which ones have walked across a stage wearing a one-size-fits-all square on its head.

It's a process, a transitional period spanning more than the length of a stage, an experience with no clear-cut ending.

If you weigh your options wisely, look at both wins and losses as learning experiences, and forever follow what feels like the right path for you, then the growing up will be more important than the being grown up, anyhow.

And if you find yourself simply sorting through sticks in the meantime, that's okay, too.

Thressa Johnson graduated from Detroit Lakes High School and attends Hamline University in St. Paul.