Almost two decades ago, when I was seventeen or eighteen, I held an outdoor party at my house, my high school graduation party.
I can’t remember if I even wanted one, but everyone just has one, parties (or rather, ‘get-togethers’ in the vernacular) are hard-wired into Midwest ethos. Mom printed small invitation cards with balloons in our school colors—blue and gold.
The tricky thing about graduation parties is they are only the weekend of Graduation, so you cannot both host and attend simultaneous parties. The short span of time demands close coordination with and prioritization of friendships in a hierarchical manner that feels incongruous to the spirit of fraternity which Graduation engenders. But you must rank your parties, and in doing so, rank your classmates. It is very egocentric. But so is youth.
A lot of work went into the party too, though I didn’t concern myself much. Mom did, I think she made everything herself, even though our local bakery had great cakes. I know because I worked there in the summers, got fat sampling cupcakes with buttercream frosting.
My party was nice. It was a lovely day, thank goodness—you never know in the Midwest. Rain comes all at once, floods, and the mud get plump and thick. Rain and mud are a double-helix of graduation party spoilers.
But it didn’t rain, and it wasn’t wet or muddy.
The party began around noon. My four grandparents were there, Mom put chairs out for them. My sister, absent, was already in college. My younger brother didn’t show up either. He was two years behind me and had other parties to attend, friends from varsity baseball or basketball.
I don’t remember a whole lot about the details, to be honest. Food, paper plates, cards with inspiring words, a few dollar bills from kind people. One of my favorite aunts gave me Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, de facto reading for hopeful intellectuals.
I probably wouldn’t have remembered anything about the party had someone not lost a diamond.
Not a diamond-diamond, but a ring. A diamond ring. The girl who lost it wasn’t a friend—we didn’t coordinate graduation parties or anything. She came with other people, and I think she was wearing her mother’s ring. Something borrowed.
Back in the ’90s, we always wore someone else’s stuff. Secondhand clothes from thrift shops, Grandpa’s sweaters, Dad’s flannel; the more suggestion of prior usage (smells, stains, tears) the better the item.
This girl wore her mom’s ring. Although I guess it didn’t fit. She waved her hand, the ring flew off. Next thing I know, a bunch of people are kneeling in our yard, inspecting the dirt. I walked over and asked what happened. She was quite upset. I felt bad . . . but at the same time, what was she thinking, wearing a ring like that? I helped her look, not long.
The party ended a few hours later and I probably took off with friends for other, later parties, second tier friends.. People left, my grandparents went inside, but my classmate was still looking for the ring. The mud wasn’t soft, it should have been visible. But it wasn’t.
She never found it. To my knowledge, no one ever did.
I think about this, often when I go home, about the patch of grass that hides it, holds it, conceals it, even protects it?
She returned day after day to look for it. At first, she asked each time, then she just came over. Once with a metal detector. Sometimes with friends. Mostly alone. I helped her when I could, but Mom told me it wasn’t my responsibility. I felt bad seeing her out there alone, though. I wish I had helped her more.
That weekend, the parties on Saturday were bookended by actual graduation events. We had two main events: Class Day—a smaller ceremony just for our class members—and Graduation, where they read names and gave diplomas and launched us into the real world.
I was asked to give the Class Day speech, probably by the teachers since I spoke “adult” and knew I would do it well. I can’t remember if my fellow classmates thought that much of me, ‘intellectual hopeful’, probably. It was supposed to be inspiring, reflective.
I did it fine, but I wasn’t great. Mostly, it was an eighteen-year-old’s nonsense, what we’re going to go do, our relationships, goals, how much it mattered so damn much. Graduation speeches are always about that: we all matter so damn much! Because in high school, you do matter. To your friends, your parents, your teachers, and especially to yourself. Egocentricity.
Perhaps the deepest fear of adolescents is that we won’t matter, we won’t be seen once we grow up and leave.
And for some people, that feel, that fear, never leaves. Our world is chock-full of people who will do anything to matter. Relationships start young and get serious so fast. Social media, selfies. People need a noble cause to their life, and if they can’t have a noble cause, they’ll settle for an audience. Sometimes mistaking that audience for a noble cause.
The behavior is so human though, isn’t it? We all need and want witnesses, to be seen, to matter.
I certainly do. Perhaps that is why I write. Writing is nothing if not autobiographical.
Before I gave the Class Day speech, I had this crazy, middle-of-the-night idea to go through every single person in the class and say a very, very short reflection of each of them. A line, nothing more. I don’t know where this idea came from, or how or why, but I felt compelled to do it.
Daylight sense prevailed, I dismissed the notion as late-night-manic creativity and delivered the hum-drum “we all matter” speech instead. Up there, on front of anyone, I felt noticed and loved, if only for a second.
We all graduated, and, as planned, we went our separate ways.
For the first few years after graduation, when I went home to my parent’s house, I’d go to the spot where my classmate lost her diamond. I’d walk carefully, even get down on the ground and part clumps of grass.
I couldn’t find it.
After a while, I stopped looking. I always imagined it buried under the topsoil, covered and forgotten. In the past few years, I also imagined a worm, a nice, fat Michigan earthworm – fodder for robins – slowly eating its way through the topsoil and colliding with a hard, shiny object. An object that, given a bit of sun, would be the most beautiful thing in the terrestrial world, the most beautiful thing the worm had ever seen. But a worm can’t see, and there is no light, so the worm would pass by—or through—the ring.
When I gave that Class Day speech almost two decades ago, I talked emphatically about how we mattered, perhaps because I feared the opposite so much.
It is one of my great regrets, I should have shared personal memories. I should have noticed people, made them realize they were special, before they left and went off, given that one moment of being witnessed. I could have remembered something about this girl that wasn’t her losing a diamond. She had almost certainly been more to me at one point than I remember her for today.
I didn’t give that speech..
I was too young to understand my fears, our collective fear of our own inconsequential lives and as a result, missed a great chance for true, human interaction.
A few days ago, I told my husband this story, told him I was going to write about it, about memory, fear, and adolescence.
He listened patiently and said, “Yeah, good metaphor—you are a diamond, aren’t you. You get lost, covered, but you are always what you are.”
I kissed him. I love him so much. And I know him, I see him. I considered what he said and after a time, told him what I’ll tell you now:
“No, I’m an earthworm. I’ve always been an earthworm. I just thought I was a diamond.”
Everyone wants to be noticed, everyone is a buried diamond. But to be a diamond will never be enough, to just shine, it’s never enough.
To see, notice, and bear witness to the covered diamonds in our path.
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