As I stepped into the basketball arena and down onto the carpet-covered court, I see rows and rows of maroon folding chairs totaling 600 before me. My eyes scan upward from the chairs, to the stage, to the podium, and the five large banners baring the Hays High School insignia. From the stage, my eyes lift upward to the gathering and chattering crowd as they hike upward and seat themselves around the arena. Hundreds of graduates and thousands of supporters will be in this room. Some graduates will have large blocks of people, others will have families and few friends, but for one student, there will be only one to cheer him on.
My heart is racing as I take in the intense sensory overload from the noise of the chatter, the band warming up their instruments, and the announcements coming from the sound check. Then the smell of all the snack foods over powers my sense of smell and my stomach slightly starts to turn over.
Suddenly my phone starts buzzing in rapid-fire succession. I look at the screen and read text after text, “He is pacing. It is intensifying. How quickly can you get here?” My eyes lift from the screen and I search for an usher. My feet quickly take me to someone in a school uniform. I tell her that I am in deep need to find out where the graduate staging area is so that I can help calm my son. She quickly radios for help. My hands start to sweat as I’m waiting to hear the crackle of the CB radio come back with an answer. I’m quickly given instruction of where my son is, and I turn race towards the staging room, however, supporters are headed towards their seats while I’m trying to head out. They quickly engulf me. I feel like I’m a salmon swimming upstream fighting for the next exit to get to my son.
The buzzing texts of my phone do not stop, causing my panic to rise with each vibration. My feet are going as quickly as possible through the crowds. My heart is racing thumping against my chest. With each pound it feels like I am tapping out an S.O.S pray to my all-loving Heavenly Father. “Please help calm him! Please help him to find a happy place.”
I finally arrive at the door and pull down on the handle. It opens and I pop my head into the gymnasium searching for Mr. Brown, Mrs. Malott, or my son. The sea of red fabric cap and gowned graduates sitting on the floor in rows before me are smiling, laughing, giving high fives to each other and living in the moment of graduation—all but one.
I spot him out of the crowd of 600 students. His red and blue tassel on his cap is swinging back and forth from his intense rocking. His face is grimacing. His head is turning side to side and his white knuckled hands look as if he will punch a hole through the wood floor. I want to run through the red sea of students to wards him thinking that I am the only that can calm him, help him, or reach him!
My chest tightens and I hear him rage and growl. A few students turn and look at him wondering what is happening, and then suddenly it stops! His face, which was pulled down tight suddenly, lifts! I hear the familiar quacking/clicking sound from his mouth and his rhythmic body slapping sound from him. I lock onto his face; he is smiling and looking down and off the right making more sounds. His tassel is still swaying but deep full body rocking has stopped. He has found a happy place.
My eyes lift from his face in the middle of all those graduates to Mrs. Malott and Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown gives me a thumbs up and mouths the words, he calmed down. I stop in my tracks and just start taking in deep-deep breaths in an effort to calm myself. Suddenly I feel a warm hand across my back and embrace me in a full hug. I burry my face against her shoulder as the 18 years of anticipating this moments crashes over me. I’m in full deep-gasping-shuttering-sleeve wiping-ugly crying mode. I find my feet rooted to the spot—unwilling to move—I need to have my cry out. More pats on my back and finally she pulls me from her shoulder. “It’s all good. He made it! You’re good to go.”
I look in her brown eyes and lock into that energy and hope which seems to stiffen my back bone, wipe off my tears, and helps me to walk out of the staging area and back into the salmon run.
Instead of trying to find a seat, I feel prompted to wait by the barriers—to wait for the graduates to walk pass me. Within moments the door opens and out they march in two parallel lines. I can hear from the arena the band beginning to play “Pomp and Circumstance,” giving the graduates the signal to begin. Some are highly decorated with ropes/chords/ribbons, but all are bearing a medal that proudly hangs around their neck as their tassels gently sway as they walk. A few parents are standing with me hundreds of shutter clicks are sounding as they continue through the route down the stairs, onto the carpet, and into their chairs.
I catch my breath as I see Garrett! He is walking proudly and talking to himself. I love his smile and I call out his name! He sees me and straightens up and stopping the whole line. I’m able to click 1 picture and he is prompted by a few students to keep going. I yell—I love you! And he smiles back. I find my feet racing towards the stairs and back into the arena. I find a perch and stand there waiting to snap a picture of him as he comes into the arena. I find his signature stomping walk and snap another. He walks to his chair formation and turns to look at all the supporters. I sign I LOVE YOU and hold it out as he scans the crowd hoping he will find me. He does! He locks eyes with me, and hold I love you until the rest of the graduates find their seats.
As the last one files into her chair the class turns and face the stage. The processional ends and the commencement begins. There are speeches from class presidents, valedictorian, the principal and so forth. “These are the best of times and more is yet to come. We have all learned to live and love and will continue to do so. Tonight high school is ending but our new life is beginning!” All familiar sayings and well wishes are given, and thunderous applause rings out.
Following the speeches it is time to recognize the graduates. I see Garrett rocking again and his fist clenching tight. My breath catches in my throat for a second time. I’m not sure what will happen next, but I quickly see Mr. Brown give Garrett a thumbs up and he taking in a few deep breaths and returning the gesture. Rhythmically, name after name the announcer calls the student as they walk across the stage. Finally it is Garrett’s turn. “Garrett Flitton” rings out and I blast the arena with my signature swim team whistle with one hand, and I love you sign with the other. Garrett’s smile seems to bubble upward and splits across his face as he shakes everyone’s hand.
He did it! He walked the stage! He did it by himself! He stayed in a happy place! He accomplished something that at age 2 ½ I never thought possible. My mind seems to flash Garrett’s life as a rush of memories engulfs me: self injurious behaviors, standing on his head watching movies upside down, no verbal communication until he was nearly 4, him climbing the cliff at Yellowstone so that he could get a better view of the falls, his signature 1st grade “fruit-bat” walk/crawl at school. His dinosaur figures which took over the upstairs hallway in his final migration reenactment. The sad tear filled eyes as he confessed to loosing my wedding ring down the bathroom sink. The artwork, the sculptures, all of his creations flood my mind.
I find my vision blurred again as the waterworks fall on my cheeks from those memories. Garrett graduated; he did the impossible. How? Step by step, line upon line, month after month, year after year. He has been in a school structure setting since he was 2 ½--that is 16 years of schoolrooms, therapy rooms, teachers, and peers. That is 3 years of IFSP’s and 13 years of IEP’s. That is 16 years of Goal setting, visual schedules, curriculum adaptations, modifications, accommodations and minutes that turn to hours, which turn to days, weeks, and years of speech therapy and Occupational therapy.
My vision turns from inward through the tears to back out on the sea of red before me and I laser focus back to Garrett. I break eye contact with him as he turns to sit back down, and bow my head in a prayer of gratitude. Heavenly Father knows the tender thoughts of my heart. I thank Him for lifting those from my heart and making today a reality.
“Will the Graduates of 2018 please stand. Congratulations class of 2018! You did it!” Applause rings out, screams, whistles, shouts, air horns blast then suddenly red tasseled hats start spinning in the air! They spin upward over and over again more clapping, shouts of names ring from the crowd. As the noise the clapping the hats all settles, there is one—a lone single spinning hat come from the crowd. It was tossed in an awkward arch and only spins one time and lands off to the side. Garrett turns back and finds my eye and gives a final curt nod of his head. I nod back. You did it Garrett! You did it!