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Happy 32nd Anniversary to Me! (A Graduation Tale)

Posted Jun 10 2013 4:35pm

My niece graduated from high school last Friday. So did my nephew’s son and a lot of my friends’ children. What will they remember of that day? The valedictorian’s speech? I doubt it. The number of bobby pins they used to secure their cardboard hats? Possibly. Or will it be what they did afterwards, in the hours following the ceremony, that they’ll keep with them in their hearts?

Most people think of the day they graduated from high school as the anniversary of the day they graduated from high school. I always remember my graduation day – June 4, 1981 – as the anniversary of the day I slept with Clayton Johnson.

Allow me to explain.

I moved to the suburbs of Minneapolis halfway through 9th grade. I was a small-town girl with small-town clothes and a small-town haircut. I was the Queen of Geek, a princess in the land of Everyone Who’s No One. Every day, my stomach ached. I dreaded every class because I’d been dropped halfway into a subject I knew nothing about. I my small town, I took Earth Science. In the suburbs, I was in chemistry. In my small town, I took Civics. In the suburbs, I was in Economics. In my small town I was one of two flute players in the band. In the suburbs, I was last chair, and several of the girls ahead of me were in a Twin Cities youth symphony. In my small town, I was in home ec. In the suburbs, I was the only girl in shop class because home ec was full. When the counseling center had us take a career exploration test, I had only one result: barge loader.

Talk about a blow to the psyche.

I loved gym class in my small town. I’d left in the middle of volleyball. In the suburbs, we were learning ballroom dancing. It was bad enough that I didn’t know any of the boys in my class, worse that one of the two boys left who could be my partner had bad breath and stared at my chest. The other boy – a tall, handsome blond – was being begged by a tall, beautiful blond girl to be her partner. Divine intervention is the only way I can explain how he looked over at me, assessed my predicament, and left the tall, beautiful girl and asked if I’d be his partner.

“Sure,” was all I managed to say. His name was Clayton (not Clay) and together we learned the waltz, the polka, and the Texas two-step over the course of the two-week dancing unit.

We didn’t become friends, exactly. For the next four years, we said hello and exchanged sterile pleasantries every time we passed each other in the hallway, and we had a math class together in which he borrowed a pencil. We signed each other’s year books every year, always mentioning how much we each enjoyed each other’s “sweet smile.”

For four years I pined, quietly and from afar, until graduation night. Everyone who was anyone (and didn’t have a date with their parents) was going to Greg M’s house for a party. And I mean EVERYONE. There were at least 300 people in and around Greg’s parents’ suburban house, and the beer was flowing. It wasn’t long before the paddy wagons showed up and kids scattered in all directions. I’d not had anything to drink (the line was too long and I’d shown up late), but I didn’t want to get swept up in the bust, so I, too, ran towards my red Mustang parked on a side street near Northwood Park. Of all the people at the party, Clayton was there, too, running next to me down the sidewalk

“Need a ride?” I asked.

“Yes!” he laughed.

We got in my car and drove up Boone Avenue, past the cops and the mayhem. Clayton said he was spending the night with a few of his friends in the woods in what is now a very large shopping development. At the time, a mile from my house, it was the edge of the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis. There was still a lot of natural real estate between Plymouth and Maple Grove back in the early ‘80s.

“Wanna join us?” he asked.

It’s the first time I remember being truly spontaneous all by myself, without the company and encouragement of a cluster of friends. When I left graduation, I was a pack of one, with no other plans than to drink beer at a party with people I’d probably never see again. Or at least, most of them. (Of course, along came Facebook, and many of those people are back in my life, at least virtually.) But fate changed that. Tall, blond, kind Clayton Johnson was asking me to stay overnight in a make-shift camp in the woods. No thought AT ALL went into my response.


We drove to the woods, parked the car, and walked about a quarter mile in the dark (Clayton held my hand) to a clearing in which three other guys I recognized, and might have talked to once or twice during my high school career, had built a fire and laid out four sleeping bags. They had some beer, a boom box, a few cigars, and a deck of cards. They greeted me like I was expected and I proceeded to spend the night drinking, gambling, and laughing with four boys I didn’t know well, but whom my gut knew I could trust. I shared a sleeping bag with Clayton, fully clothed, and he kissed me a few times before we fell asleep. When the sun came up, I slipped out of the sleeping bag without waking Clayton, walked back through the woods, and drove home. My mother took a photo of me standing next to my Mustang, disheveled, but so very happy. I never saw Clayton again, but I can’t imagine a better way or a better person with whom to jump-start my adult life.

Not sure too many parents want to share this story with their recent graduates, but my hope is that the recent graduates I know and love will trust themselves and forge ahead with their dreams without too much consultation from the naysayers. You don’t have to spend the night in the woods with a boy you danced with in 9th grade gym class, but I do hope you begin your emancipation with fun and high hopes.

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