Graduation

When I first attended this school, it was called Okaloosa Walton College. It was about the size of an area rug back then.

NICEVILLE—The Northwest Florida State College parking lot is swarmed with cars. Families are hurrying toward the gymnasium, dressed in their Sunday best.

I pass a man wearing denim. There are grease smudges on his jeans. Holes in his work shirt.

“I’m gonna see my son graduate,” he tells me, lighting a cigarette. “I can hardly believe it.”

Tha man’s name is Danny, he drove here from DeFuniak Springs to see his boy walk across a stage to receive a degree.

“My son’s the pride of our family,” he says. “I love that boy so much.”

Inside the arena is a huge crowd. In the center of the basketball court are hundreds of students in black gowns and square caps. Their faces, happy. Their smiles, blinding.

I stand in the nosebleeds beside Danny. He uses his phone to capture this moment.

Danny tells me his bossman didn’t want him leaving work today. But Danny said, “Damn that, I’m gonna see my boy walk, sir, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad. I’ll be back after lunch.”

When we sing the national anthem, Danny removes his cap and holds it over his heart. He sings louder than anyone.

Then he waves at his son. But his son doesn’t see him.

“There he is,” Danny says, pointing. “See him?”

“I see him,” I say.

When I first attended this school, it was called Okaloosa Walton College. It was about the size of an area rug back then.

This was the only place that would take an adult dropout like me. And it is the only alma mater I have ever known.

It’s funny. I was afraid to enroll here as an adult. I was worried everyone would think I was stupid. I was embarrassed on my first day of class. But I got over it. It took me less than a week to fall into the gentle rhythm of academia.

I took math with Miss Bronginez—the woman was as downhome as a crop of peanuts. She knew how to explain the pythagorean theorem to a man who still counted on his fingers.

And Doctor Schott, who sometimes delivered world class lectures in the back of a double-wide trailer for night class.

And Miss Lopez. I loved her Spanish classes. I took every course she offered until there were none left to take.

I took music with Mister Domulot, who remains one of my closest friends. And Mister Latenser, who still helps me when I have car problems. And Mister Nida, who lets me play in his band sometimes.

That’s the kind of small-town institution I attended. It was home to me, the kid who had no home. A place where I learned what it meant to study something in earnest.

It was here a faceless blue collar man once sat in an English class with a teacher who said, “You really oughta consider a career in writing.”

Last week, I was in my office. I was writing. When it was lunchtime, my wife knocked on the door. She presented me with a turkey sandwich and a small gift bag.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Turkey on rye,” she said.

“I meant what’s in the bag?”

“Oh, I don’t know, it came for you.”

There was a card attached. It read: “Northwest Florida State College.”

Inside the bag was an award. A heavy one. When I saw it, I had to sit down.

The statue was made of crystal. There was writing on it. The trophy read:

“Sean Dietrich, Distinguished Alumni, Against the Odds.”

It’s the only award I’ve ever received—unless you count the prize I won for safe forklift driving.

But the inscription on the trophy is only half correct. Maybe the odds were against me, but they’re against everyone. All you have to do is ask the kids in black gowns.

Or better yet, ask Danny. He’ll tell you. Life is bone hard. And just when you think it can’t get any harder, it raises your insurance premiums.

Still, somehow education found me. And it wasn’t because I was determined, or smart, or because I pushed myself. It was because I was pulled. By good people who stand quietly in this arena.

The ceremony begins. My new friend Danny is all ears. We watch the candidates take the platform.

When they announce his boy’s name, Danny starts cheering so hard I can hear his voice break. Soon, the two of us are clapping and hollering for a kid I’ve never even met.

The boy walks across the stage.

“That’s my son,” Danny says to me. “That’s him, do you see him? That’s my little boy.”

I certainly do see him.

Every time I look in a mirror.

31 comments

  1. Connie Havard Ryland - May 5, 2019 7:13 am

    Dang it Sean. It’s too early in the morning for tears. That was lovely. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Carolyn Gilbert - May 5, 2019 8:24 am

    Wow! Can’t sleep but it’s worth it to read this at 4:20 am God bless

    Reply
  3. Steve Winfield - May 5, 2019 9:15 am

    Yeah. God bless you Sean. In Jesus name. You’re a gifted man but you know that. I got maybe 10 pages to go on “The Other Side…” Sucked in like a new Shop Vac. I love you. Steve

    Reply
  4. STB Empty Nester - May 5, 2019 11:10 am

    Perfect. “Just when you think life can’t get any harder, it raises your insurance premiums”. Lol – that’s one I’ll recycle.
    I got a Jr at UAB and one graduating high school in 3 weeks. Lord the time does fly, and the insurance premiums… they do rise.

    Reply
  5. Cynthia Harmon - May 5, 2019 11:13 am

    Oh the tears. The pride we feel for our children is like no other. You certainly do deserve the award. I know the college is proud of you. We, your fans, are so excited for you!

    Reply
  6. LeAnne - May 5, 2019 11:23 am

    Sean, I spent my first two years of college at a community college a few miles from my home. It was a place of beauty, not just because of the trees and the lake and the quiet, but because it fed my love and delight of learning. The professors there were as good as any I encountered at the state school where I finished my degree. In fact, I would say that they were more enthusiastic about teaching; they seemed less jaded and harried. I will always be grateful for those two years with those people. Thank you for reminding me. And congratulations on your trophy. You deserve it.

    Reply
  7. Karen - May 5, 2019 11:55 am

    I remember when my brother was a senior in high school, with 3 weeks left until his graduation. I was working evening shift as a nurse to support him, my sister, and my daughter.
    He casually told me that he was going to go to school to repair air conditioning units, and he was going to drop out.
    I lost it. I started ranting at him. He told me he would do anything, if I would just stop yelling at him.
    He finished high school, went to college on a soccer scholarship, and earned his degree in finance. He had a career in banking and credit service.
    You have no idea how your writing touches us all.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  8. Janet Williams - May 5, 2019 11:55 am

    Sean, you are on a roll this week. You always touch my heart, but this week has been extra special…ever since you wrote about the school shooting. Whatever you are doing, keep doing it!

    Reply
  9. Donald Snyder - May 5, 2019 12:34 pm

    Love you Bro. 39 years ago, December 1978, I graduated. No one there to see me. Didn’t walk, we both had to work that day.

    Folks split up when I was a freshman. Navy pulled my scholarship because they had to many pilots and I had been knocked out playing ball.

    So I worked groceries, dog track, UPS, surveying, oil field, construction, chemistry lab, aircraft strip and painting, astronomy lab, cleaning aircraft engines, Xray and ultrasound on oil pipelines– until we got through.

    Only got laid off once and I only quit once. Both times left such a bad damn taste in my mouth I swore never again.

    Oh yes, right in the middle of this mess, God put an Angel in my path. We got married Saturday afternoon, January 7, honeymooned one night at the Holidome on Navarre Beach, and started our Junior year at UWF on Monday morning. Her Dad didn’t show up.

    The young lady worked too. A big night out was 1 whataburger and two milkshakes.

    We made it, barely. If my grandparents hadn’t brought a bag of groceries by every other week and her aunt and uncle didn’t have us over to dinner on the weekends, we would have starved.

    We didn’t know it till year later, but Her Dad and Mom had made sure that tiny trailer house behind her Aunt and Uncles barn in Brent was $20 a month cheaper than anything else we found. They were paying $50 a month to make sure we were safe and someone was keeping an I on us.

    He didn’t think I would amount to much, or be able to hold on to a job, so when I started back at UWF that January, I asked them what’s the toughest major you have. She said “I think that would be Physics” ; “Sign me up please ma’am”.

    Success wasn’t making good grades, I made a few. Success wasn’t having a hot wife, I still do (Thank you Jesus). Success was surviving and enduring for 2 1/2 years when all I wanted to do was quit, after working a shift or a double, studying the rest of the night, and then trying to stay awake through 4 hours of lectures and labs.

    I retired last week after 40 years, and 38 years in the same job. Never stopped learning. Found a few like me and helped them along a bit. Going to work with high school and Jr College kids now, and help them a bit. Hope my Dad in law can see it in Heaven, I didn’t quit.

    I graduated 40 years ago. Thanks be to God, last Thursday 175 people showed up to see me retire as the distinguished Air Force fellow and principal scientist. Success is a few people helping you along a bit, willing to do whatever it takes, and never, never, never giving up.

    I proud of You, Sean. I know.

    Reply
  10. Eiizabeth - May 5, 2019 12:36 pm

    Excellent piece. The last sentence made me cry.

    Reply
  11. Donald Snyder - May 5, 2019 12:36 pm

    When I get my coffee I’ll fix the math. 41 years ago..

    Reply
  12. Jan - May 5, 2019 12:37 pm

    One of your many bests!!! Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
  13. Robbie - May 5, 2019 12:49 pm

    Wow!

    Reply
  14. marsha weisel - May 5, 2019 1:14 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for reminding me of all the things that are good in this world.
    Graduation is the most precious milestone of them all!

    Reply
  15. Carol Heidbreder - May 5, 2019 1:39 pm

    Awesome Sean! Many us will identify with this. Some of the very ones that should be there supporting are AWOL. Well, that can be the catalyst to NOT QUIT no matter how tough it gets. I was breathless and so overcome when my husband walked. Then two long years later my favorite picture taken with a cheap camera is of ME, really ME, in cap and gown holdings my third child AND a diploma!!! I wept when the teaching certificate came in the mail later. We did it!! Like you and Donald, we nearly starved and always looked for the third or fourth job for a few more dollars. And oh, some of the places we lived!!! This is how you really get to know yourself and just what you are really made of. A good prep for the bumps and sharp turns life will continue to hand out and the ability to empathize with others and give a leg up when you can because you recognize a need. I wouldnt have had it any other way! We too were “that boy”.

    Reply
  16. Steve - May 5, 2019 1:50 pm

    Sean, that is battery acid strong

    Reply
  17. Shelton A. - May 5, 2019 1:52 pm

    Great writing! Great story! An award well deserved…congratulations, o’ distinguished one. God bless you and Jamie and God bless Danny and his son.

    Reply
  18. Sally Brown - May 5, 2019 2:08 pm

    I love your writing, and look forward to it everyday. Sometimes It makes me laugh and sometimes it makes me cry. Either way it helps me start my day.

    Reply
  19. Kaye Cutchen Hall - May 5, 2019 2:36 pm

    This story is so meaningful to this old retired teacher! I absolutely believe everyone of your teachers saw something special when you were in their classrooms.

    Reply
  20. Linda Moon - May 5, 2019 4:02 pm

    Beating Odds and Seeing Others In Your Own Reflection…this describes the man you are who touches the lives of many people in the stories you tell. Keep ’em coming!

    Reply
  21. Sue - May 5, 2019 4:11 pm

    Yes, Sean, we are so proud to read your life stories every day. And, so proud of Danny and his beloved son, too.

    Reply
  22. Elizabeth - May 5, 2019 4:53 pm

    One of your best!

    Reply
  23. Edna B. - May 5, 2019 5:43 pm

    What a great story. We all need a little help along the way. And then we all need to pass a little bit of help to someone else along their way. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  24. Allie - May 5, 2019 5:56 pm

    Done two non-trads (hello, UWF! What you’ve become, my dear jewel…) and an R1 (top-rate research institution). Taught college-level 8 years, too. Have a lot of good things to say about small schools.

    That kid is me. Many of the people in my family. And I try to treat my students that way. 30 kids show up in your class, even at Osceola-Flavored University – especially flagship universities these days, and boy howdy, good job kiddo, now start taking notes 😂 – you don’t know how many of them are the hardscrabble, 3-job type.

    I’ve said a couple of times I think we “just missed each other.” I’m starting to wonder by how much.

    Cheers.

    Reply
  25. Jack Darnell - May 5, 2019 6:04 pm

    I love that feeling that jumps out in the post. You are a pretty good dude I hear, but as they say ‘one cannot believe every thing one hears.’
    I wish I had graduated from ‘something’, at least you did GRADUATE! The when is of little importance. My dad & mom graduated from “Hard Knox”, I cannot even claim that. LOL
    Thanks for the continuing ‘good reads’, WE enjoy them.
    Sherry & jack

    Reply
  26. Darell Dunn - May 5, 2019 7:23 pm

    GREAT COLUMN !
    YOU HAVE VALIDATED THE AMERICAN DREAM AND WHAT IS GREAT ABOUT AMERICA !
    Love the Hook !

    Reply
  27. Pat - May 6, 2019 12:11 am

    Sweet!

    Reply
  28. Linda White Fidler - May 6, 2019 2:42 am

    I thank goodness for the day I stumbled across your blog. I look forward to each of your stories. They are all excellent. Thank you.

    Reply
  29. Charaleen Wright - May 6, 2019 5:08 am

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  30. Melanie - May 6, 2019 5:20 am

    Sean, whenever I think the people on this planet are on a jet powered handbasket to you know where I read your stories. I love the people and places and dogs and memories and things you write about. Thank you for showing me the real world. Congratulations to Danny and son. I love them too. ❤️

    Reply
  31. ann hays - May 6, 2019 2:43 pm

    Love your columns!!!

    Reply

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