Kindergarten. 1986. I was 5. I lived with my parents in the right half of a duplex on Ponce de Leon Street. There was a Japanese plum tree in our side yard, and I spent a lot of time sitting in its branches making up stories and rubbing the fuzz off of the leaves to expose the shiny bright-green underneath. I was in Ms. Sirgo’s kindergarten class at McDonogh No. 15 in the French Quarter, and my best friend was Kate O’Connell.
At the end of the year, on the last day, we all sang a song that the upper grades had written called, “Hey, Mr. Buggy Man.” I can still remember the chorus: “Hey, Mr. Buggy Man/Let’s take a ride today/Go up Decatur Street to Jackson Square/The streets are old and neat/Nice people that you meet/And there is music, music everywhere!” After the song, a student from each grade recited a poem; I had been chosen as the kindergarten representative.
The poem was called “I Will Not Hatch” by Shel Silverstein. Both of my parents had somewhere to be that morning, but my brother, Scott, who lived only a few blocks away from my school, had promised he’d come to watch me. Even so young, I’d learned not to count on him, but as I stood up on shaky, scabby 5-year-old knees, I was beyond relieved to see him in the audience. “Oh, I am a chickie who lives in an egg,” I started nervously, my green eyes locked onto his blue ones and not looking anywhere else. “But I will not hatch, I will not hatch/The hens they all cackle, the roosters all beg/But I will not hatch, I will not hatch/For I hear all the talk of pollution and war/As the people all shout and the airplanes roar/So I’m staying in here where it’s safe and it’s warm/And I WILL NOT HATCH!”
Sixth grade. 1992. I was 11. I lived with my mom in the top half of a duplex on Virginia Street. My dad lived with his new much-younger wife in a French Quarter apartment on Burgundy Street, and I saw him every Wednesday. I was just finishing up sixth grade in Mr. Dominique’s class at Edward Hynes Elementary. My best friends were Kelly Smith and Morgan Reed, and we were all heading to different middle schools: public (me, to Lusher); private (Kelly, to Country Day); and parochial (Morgan, to St. Francis Xavier).
The sixth graders sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Boyz II Men and then sat quietly while the teachers showed a slideshow set to “Stand By Me.” That was the first time I realized my weakness for photos set to music – I will always cry during a slideshow.
My brother was dead by then and my sister was living out of state, but my mom was there, beaming at me as I won pretty much every award the school had to give. My dad, however, was in Yelapa, Mexico, for a two-month-long vacation and wasn’t there. The night before graduation, I’d called his house just to hear his voice on the answering machine. As I walked down from the stage and into my mom’s arms, she handed me a bouquet of roses. “Thanks,” I said. “They’re from your dad,” she told me. I knew they weren’t. I hugged her extra-tight, and we went and got chocolate amaretto ice cream at Screamin’ Mimi’s by City Park.
My dad came back from Mexico a few weeks later and gave me a brightly painted gourd for my graduation, told me he was proud of me. I’d thrown the roses out by then and never asked him about them; I was absurdly grateful for the tiny painted gourd and kept it on my desk through college.
Eighth grade. 1994. I was 13. My mom and I still lived on Virginia Street; my dad had moved to Mid-City, bought an rundown house on Banks Street that he was renovating. I was just finishing up eighth grade at Lusher Extension. My best friend was Kate Roach, and my boyfriend was Ben Eason. I was dressed in a white baby doll dress and had a smile on my face, but I was still reeling from Kate and my fight the night before at the graduation dance. We sang “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men, and there was another slideshow, and I cried some more.
As I walked across the stage, each teacher shook my hand until I got to Mr. Bailey, my English teacher. Two weeks earlier, I’d been devastated to not be invited to a huge graduation party one of the popular girls was throwing. I’d written about it in my English journal, and he’d written back, in his quirky red-inked handwriting, “Please don’t worry about such slights, Eveness. Soon, the indignities of middle school will seem like a long time ago. And as Nick said to Gatsby, ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them put together.’” As I extended my hand to Mr. Bailey, he picked me up and hugged me, whispered in my ear, “You’re going to do great things, Eveness.” He and I would go on to have a complicated relationship over the years, including a huge falling-out over my getting married at such a young age, but at the time, his approval meant everything to me.
12th grade. 1998. I was 17. My mom and I lived in the left half of a shotgun double on Toulouse Street. My dad lived part of the time at his house in Mid-City and part of the time in Mississippi with the woman who would become his fifth wife, Merrie Christmas (now Merrie Christmas-Kidd). I was dressed in a green cap and gown with an orange-and-green tassel, Ben Franklin’s colors. My best friend, my boyfriend, my entire social life was Jeremy Faneca. Our senior song was Tom Petty’s “Free-Fallin’” but the two most inescapable songs at the time were “My Heart Will Go On” and “How Bizarre.” I’d had a graduation party a few days before with Ms. Sirgo and Mr. Bailey in attendance.
I’d lost touch with Kate O’Connell and Morgan Reed by then, but Kelly Smith and Kate Roach both graduated with me, one headed to the University of Washington and one headed to Yale. I was headed to the University of Missouri, to a dormitory called Hatch Hall, which made me think of that poem I’d read all those years ago in kindergarten. I was hatching, like it or not.
My dad was there and my sister, but as I walked out of the auditorium, I headed straight for my mom. I knew she was the one I had to thank, and I walked right into her arms and said, “We did it, Mom.”
My college graduation was long and boring, with no slide shows and no songs besides the national anthem. I don’t think I even attended my graduation for my master’s degree.
But every May, I can’t help but feel the slightest vicarious thrill and slightest twinge of sadness as I watch graduates from whatever grade, whatever age, move on to the next big thing and leave something else behind. Congratulations to all of them.