Mortar Boards and Floating Names
The sky was a turbulent gray – low-lying clouds of various sizes teasing each other, rushing forward and falling back. The wind was darting back and forth across the wide swath of green in awkward starts and fits like our blind cow when she managed to escape from the pasture. Somewhere in the crowd filling up the home bleachers were my parents, my brother, both sets of grandparents. None of them with umbrellas. The band had already turned in their uniforms, so it was that instead of marching onto Womack Field to the verve of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Statesboro High School Class of 1974 walked across the football field to the beat of Emma Kelly on the electric keyboard. I stepped under the goalpost, holding my mortarboard on with one hand and my honor graduate stole with the other just as she struck the first chords of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Those images remained crystalline nearly 46 years later as I walked into a room full of the adults those boys and girls clad in flimsy blue and white graduation gowns became. After the raucous greetings, warm hugs, and lies that nobody believed, Jim, our class vice-president, offered a welcome, proffered some thanks, made an announcement or two, and then glanced my way. I was to offer a few words in memory of our deceased classmates. I said something about not necessarily remembering all the names on the list except for seeing them on layout pages of the yearbook, but understanding – after so many years of living – that I did know them. They grew up in the same place I grew up. They went to the same schools and were a part of the same community. Theirs was the same culture. That while I may not have been able to tell you on what streets they lived or what buses they rode or their siblings’ names or where their daddies worked, I knew them and I know them still. Because they were part of us and they still are. At least I think that’s what I said. It’s hard to say such things when you are looking into faces you have loved for your whole life. The list of names will be longer next time. And still longer the time after. I know that. But I also know that with every list of names the ones I will remember are the ones called out loudly, in alphabetical order, from a wobbly portable stage on a soggy football field, the ones that floated gently up into those low gray clouds, each drifting off in a different direction.