Today, although it probably won’t really seem like it, my nephew Justin graduates high school. There won’t be a ceremony, per se, just a couple of words you don’t usually like to put together: a school drive-by to pick up his diploma amid congratulatory honks. No speeches, no robe, no tassle-turning, no after-party. You’re done, kid; nice job.
His school, with a population probably close to the entirety of the City of Gunnison, is making provision for an outdoor ceremony sometime this summer, and Justin did order a cap and gown, although my mother tells me the chosen venue is much smaller than the loaner auditorium utilized by his sister’s class a couple years ago.
Lynn and I didn’t make it to that graduation, opting instead to attend the party two days later. But this year there’s no party of any sort, and no driving to Arvada by any of his relatives from this part of the world. Those already in Arvada had a little gathering for him last week, elevating him right past high school to PhD status by putting him in the gown that belonged to the late grandfather he never met but who provided Justin’s middle name.
So his graduation, like his peers all around the world, isn’t going to get the recognition we’re all used to, but I’d hate for that to minimize his effort. I hope he doesn’t mind me going semi-public about this, but for many years he was perceived as an indifferent student. Finally, while in high school, testing, a diagnosis and medication addressed his learning disability, and he is graduating on the honor roll.
A couple of fields he’s always enjoyed success in have been theatre and music, but this success may have led to the biggest disappointment: one of his choirs became only the fifth U.S. high school choir to qualify for the World Choir Games. They were headed to Belgium to compete and sing and explore, early this summer.
Instead, he is moving in with his grandparents, turning their basement into a video-game paradise. While my mom and John are fun people, they’re no Belgium. His big outings are likely to be to the relatives at this end of the world and to New Mexico to visit a lifelong friend. Again, we’re all loads of fun, but none of us are Belgium either.
For almost all of my life, I have been told by my maternal relatives how much I remind them of my mom’s only sibling, her older brother Jerry. The pair of us are bookish, rather introverted (you don’t have to believe it, but it is true), tending toward a studious approach to life . . . an avid photographer, Uncle Jerry bought me my first single-lens-reflex camera, which I used so much I wore it out. At one point he owned a bookstore, which he loved but which didn’t pay the bills nearly as well as technical writing, but he did get a lot of good books my way for awhile.
We really got to know each other quite well after I started attending college. Rarely in the same location, we used the telephone to further our relationship, and friends and roommates would comment on how very well my uncle and I got along just based on listening to my end of the conversations.
For nearly all of Justin’s life, I have been told by all his maternal relatives how much he reminds them of me. (I don’t know if they tell this to him as well.) The similarities are not as apparent as they were with Uncle Jerry and me.
Justin is not bookish, not a writer. He plays video games and, as I just read on his graduation card, plans to major in math (where did I go wrong?) when he starts either virtually or in person at what I call Western Not State but he is going to call Western Colorado University. He is gregarious and garrulous, a born salesman when I can’t even sell snow to the Inuit, or however the politically incorrect saying goes. I don’t even try.
And yet, they insist the two of us are very much alike. Where they seem to see the similarities is at the metaphysical level. I will say that Justin and I both want the world to be fair, and we both time and time again learn that it really isn’t this way. But that doesn’t stop either of us from championing fairness wherever we can.
There are many Justin stories in family lore. A favorite is the time he was on vacation somewhere riding along in a golf cart, probably around 8 or 9 years old, and he saw a group of women. As the golf cart breezed past, he leaned out and waved broadly like the born bon vivant he is. “Helloooo, ladies!” he shouted, not a self-conscious bone in his body.
But this is the Justin story that speaks to me the most: he had a classmate, a year or two ago, who seemed to go out of the way to make Justin’s life miserable. And then it turned out this student was struggling mightily within, made obvious when she came out as transgender. Her family was unhappy with this, and not all her classmates reacted well. She would come to school without a lunch or money to buy any, and Justin, previously the focus of his classmate’s scorn and derision, would buy her lunch.
I don’t believe they became friends, and I’m not sure their association, which seemed to be centered on choir classes, continued, but that makes the story even better, because it indicates Justin wasn’t angling to get anything out of his offer of kindness. It was just exactly that, an offer of kindness to a person who didn’t know much of that and who had certainly never shown any to him.
Justin gives me something to aspire to, and it is an honor to have people compare the two of us favorably. What I dare to hope is that, like my uncle before, he and I have a chance to get to know one another better during his college years, which conveniently will start right here in Gunnison.
On this not-much-of-a graduation day, I tip my cap to my nephew as he sets out to make his mark on the world. From here, it looks like he’s already done that.
Here’s a picture of the the two of us, taken a week or two ago.