Folks close to me or who follow this column know I’m trying to use those parts of my mind, body and soul that allow me to experience emotions more fully. Well, I did just that during a recent presentation to a group of high school students. And what happened in the auditorium that evening caught me completely off guard.
I was the guest speaker at the school’s annual Academic Awards Program which honors students who earned honor roll status the previous school year. It was a proud moment for several hundred students and their parents. It also nearly cost me my treasured ‘man-card’.
Previous speakers have celebrated the achievements of the students, provided words of encouragement to maintain their level of excellence, and discussed how working hard today, both in the classroom and in the community, can pay dividends later in life. The letter of invitation I received to speak also stated that students would benefit from hearing from someone like me who has put these attributes of scholarship and service into action in the community. So I tried to do all those things in my address, plus sprinkle in the achievements of a couple folks I know who exemplify excellence.
The speech went as well as could be expected for a person who doesn’t do that sort of thing for a living. I even got some of them laughing a time or two. But the really powerful part of the program was yet to come and didn’t involve me at the podium. I did play a small part in the action but it was students who initiated it. And I never saw it coming, until it was too late.
After my address, I helped the principal recognize each student, one by one. We shook the hands of what seemed like hundreds of students as they filed across stage. After we relaxed into an efficient routine, I started noticing the students; really seeing them. I looked beyond their faces, what they wore, how they walked.
Some were giddy; others serious. More than a few were nervous. A lot of them, I could tell, would have rather not paraded themselves across the stage in front of 700 pairs of eyes watching their every move. Then it happened: I felt the magnitude of the moment. These youth passing before me, accepting recognition and receiving purple folders that symbolically represented the hard work and effort put into their achievement – for some reason, the full weight of the moment came glaring into focus.
At first it was unsettling. Then it got worse. Or rather, it got better. As student after student filed past and I shook their hands, I became emotional in response to what these kids had done. The work they had put in. The effort teachers made to help them learn. It was a small step for some. For others it was a giant leap. And I was there to recognize and honor them. It was just a moment in time with each student; a smile, my congratulations, a handshake. But it was the experience of a lifetime. For me. Guess they enjoyed it too.
For some, walking across stage like that may have been the first of many high points. For others, it might end up being their greatest achievement in life. It was for those reasons I found myself close to tears a couple times. All because I allowed myself to feel the moment. A guy could get used to this thing called emotion.