Rob Artley: Let kids know they're loved — and they're not invincible

This time of year, when the lilacs are fragrant and the crabapple trees are blossoming and everything is wrapped in new green foliage for the summer season, I think of commencement.

And when I think of commencement, I think of seniors marching into the gymnasium on a sunny afternoon, and I think of tradition and speeches — and that one year in particular.

I've attended many high school graduations in my career, witnessed many students and adults give inspiring speeches and share memorable philosophies and thoughts. Yet, I most clearly remember just one — a brief, extended minute, given by a dad. Anthony's dad.

It wasn't really a speech at all. It was a lesson, a gift to all who were there, an example of parental love and love for a community. And it wasn't really given at graduation, yet it happened in front of that same school assemblage, and it happened in the school gymnasium where we all had gathered, and that is why I think of it at this time of year.

Our 2003 seniors graduated at 2:30 p.m. on a Sunday in late May. Each year, it had been the same — same massive crowd, same gymnasium on a warm Sunday afternoon, the hollow presence of bleachers and high ceilings, the smell of perfume, carnations and roses mingled with the smell of floor wax where school rivalries played out each winter.


Everyone was present: parents, grandparents, relatives, friends and neighbors.

There is this recognizable moment when the crowd quiets as the speakers approach the stage. Except for the occasional cough, cry of a baby and squeak of bleachers echoing through the vast room, everyone waits.

The band begins the familiar portion of the great number, an ascending, dramatically climbing introduction, as the crowd stands. Gradually, with the steady cadence comes the release of syncopated power as it claims its place — the somber-yet-memorable march of "Pomp and Circumstance" — and the senior class comes up the aisle.

Anthony was one of them. He was everybody's teen — deeply involved in school, friendly to anyone interested, always displaying an eager smile. Although he occasionally was a challenge, he loved life, and he was close to his parents and community.

Anthony was an only child. His dad would sometimes visit with me about him, as some parents did when they worried about their children. Anthony sometimes acted as if he believed he was indestructible, and being the principal, I knew him well. In fact, he had become quite comfortable in my office.

Occasionally, after consequences had been issued, we would sit and visit for awhile about what he wanted to do with his life.

It was a few days after commencement on a beautiful June morning when the call came. Anthony, who had crossed that stage a few days before, had died in a one-car crash on a country road.

At his parents' request, the funeral was to be held in the same gymnasium where he had received his diploma a few days before. They had also requested all the students wear school jerseys and uniforms.


The staff and Class of 2003 would follow the family into the service.

There was much sadness that day. Tragedy had come into our place of celebration, and everything felt so wrong and out of place.

The parents had insisted on an open casket, and at the end, while a song was quietly played, Anthony's dad walked forward and said goodbye to his son before shutting the lid.

I will never forget it. I will never forget his knees shaking so badly that I wondered if he would remain standing. I will never forget the pain and torment in his face and his anguished voice. I will never forget that we all bore witness to this captivatingly private moment.

After the service, after the long entourage of yellow school buses and cars went to the cemetery, and after the very quiet burial, we all came back to the school for refreshments — and the dad wanted to tell me something.

We went to a corner of the lunchroom, and he told me why he had said goodbye to his boy in that manner. He told me he did it so all the kids could see how they are loved by their parents and how devastating it is to lose a child — and how much pain it can cause.

All the graduates that year were there. One day, when they are seasoned by life and parenthood, I am hopeful they may fully comprehend what they witnessed on that day 10 years ago.

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