Commencement

Remember when you were young?
You shone like the sun.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
— Roger Waters

 

1

Each spring we laud and celebrate
you seniors in the bloom of life,
who think your sun will never set
and dreams you dream will never die.


Your matching caps and gowns unite
your disparate herd corralled into
a pompous masquerade today
to hear someone unknown to you
pontificate ad interim
banalities ad nauseam.


You know by now enough to lead
a thoughtful, kind, and useful life,
and make a habitat a home
with what you learned your years inside
archaic walls, with petty rules,
contrived by burned-out pedagogues.


If you did time as I did mine
(and timeless truths we know endure),
the living lights that edified
you most were mostly peers of yours.
And what they did, not what they said,
will shine through, burn through, sheepskin shade. 


So bless your peers today—today!—
with words you'll someday wish you'd said,
because, O fledglings, once you part
and fly your separate ways from here, 
you'll never get this chance again. 
So heed my voice and do this, or
repeat my choice and my regret:
pain unabsolved and unresolved,
good deeds unsung, acclaim unsaid.
 

2

Jeff, a dying star rippling with strange fire, 
raging madly between unseen forces
and invisible pressure, you were both
dark and brilliant, hot headed, cold blooded, 
quick to charm, quick to harm, my first best friend.
My first worst friend, we met when I was six. 
Gullible me, I was no match for you. 


We got along as long as we played your
war games and mind games and you stayed in charge. 
You crushed my dissent with constant violence. 
You were a force I could not resist, but
I thought if I could make you laugh, you would
quit hurting me. This dysfunction took me
years of friendship frustration to unlearn. 
Only when you did that thing to the dog
did I think to escape. I told my dad: 
Jeff’s bad. Really bad. I can’t be his friend. 
I realized I had to change course or be
atomized by your strange gravity, and
it was my first good decision in years.
I was nine.


A few years later, a fire truck barreled
through our neighborhood and roared to a stop
in front of your house. The fire began in
your sister's bedroom while she was asleep.
I knew you played with matches because we
used to sneak and smoke stolen cigarettes. 
I never
considered the possibility that
it wasn’t you, or just an accident.


You spent the next two years locked up somewhere,
and came out scarier than you went in,
with bulging biceps and a flat affect. 
At seventeen, at the bank next door to
my home, you committed armed robbery.
At twenty-seven, you would die alone,
bleeding to death in your car on New Year’s,
shot by a teenager in a drug deal.


I don't know when you passed your tipping point
of no return and began to collapse
in on yourself, but it was way too early.
If I could somehow dive through the black hole
you left behind, and bend time, and warn you
of the tragedies to come, I wouldn’t
know when to show up, or if you’d listen.
You taught me to trust the testimonies
of children, no matter how fantastic
they may sound. No matter how terrible. 
And I forgive you.
 

Melvin,
You had fire in your eyes, in your fists, in your smile, 
an alpha with a heart for the omegas.
When a kid on the fringe sat and cried in the bleachers,
you cradled him and held his narrow shoulders.
You asked questions, let him talk, let him cry, let him breathe.
His misery and fears came gushing out.
You listened; you gave comfort.
Encouraged, I was spellbound.
The kid had lost all hope til you showed up.


You were Jesus with an afro, like a sermon in the flesh.
I never knew such power could be kind.
In autumn, we were bussed to different schools in different zip codes.
Alas, I never breathed your air again!
Melvin:
a better man at thirteen
than a lot of men at thirty.

Shine on.
 

Michelle,
You taught me that darkness resents the light,
that good kids get bullied because they’re good,
that documentaries can get it wrong,
that it's not always the glamorous girl—
the flawless, perfect, goddess in her prime
who would light up every room she entered—
who is suddenly, tragically murdered.


Sometimes it's the awkward introvert who
tries not to draw attention to herself,
the twelve-year-old mocked for her purity,
the child teased for her big nose and big breasts,
the virgin sobbing hysterically
as she cowers topless after some fool
sociopath rips away her tube top
while hundreds of her peers stare dumbfounded,
the girl who never drank alcohol but
gets killed by a drunk driver,
the quiet girl who will go out shopping
with her mom on summer vacation and
never go home again,
never start the eighth grade,
never have her mother call her quinceañera,
never have her father call her sweet sixteen,
never grow up,
never grow old.
Too many nevers.


I quit believing in God when you died.
I’m sorry; I know you wouldn’t want that.
But it wasn’t fair and I was angry.
And now, decades later, it still isn’t.
Your death taught me that happy endings are
for fairy tales, but it also taught me
that life is too hard to bear without God.
So after eight years of running from Him,
I stopped. He wasn’t even breathing hard,
and somehow one step ahead the whole time.
So, when I die, I know I’ll see you again.

You are not forgotten.
Shine on, Michelle.



And you gilded douters,
Children of privilege who cut down, spit on,
and try to snuff out, what can I tell you?
You used people like me as bandages
to absorb your poison and cover up
your wounds, then ripped us off and threw us out.
You taught me the simplest test of character:
tell somebody No and watch what happens.
I was surprised at who passed and who failed.
(You know who you are.)


You taught me it's better to be alone
with dignity than lonely in a crowd,
better to be dumped once than duped again
and again
and again.


Light always wins.
I forgive you all.
 

3

O fledglings, I’m sorry.
Please pardon my digression.
My ghostly procession
of empty candelabras
once full of light,
now full of shades
I cannot see
and cannot touch
and can't forget,
grows longer and darker with time.
I don’t view it often.
It’s no fun exhibit.
Yet, it reminds me to bask in the warmth
of all the brilliant people in my life.


Celebrate each other’s light, dear fledglings.
Shine on.
Thank you.