The morning of June 8, 2016 was surreal.
Walking back into our Student Residence, Villa la Stella, was like being flushed into a larger family of 45 people who are so different but love each other despite, and for, their differences. I had forgotten how all-encompassing the TGS energy is within a few days of being with my Shetler clan. Feeling the togetherness, comfortableness, closeness, and the lack of judgment that only comes with unconditional love, was like I was home again (or a different home). The look people give you, and I’m sure many of you can relate when you come back and visit TGS again, is like you are their long lost cousin that they have missed everyday and cannot believe just how fortunate they are to have you back for a couple of moments. In more ways than less, that is exactly what it feels like to see your dog or really any dog.
Fast forward to 13 almost-graduates and some staff being bussed to the venue. I can speak for everyone by saying that we were shocked by how beautiful the venue was. It collectively took all of our breaths away, as it must have for the centuries that it has existed.
In that state of awe, we were told to relax and eventually get ready. When doing makeup and hair, primping and jamming – we heard this strange banging sound over the music. Dragging our eyes from our vanity, my room collectively gasp-laughed at the hurricane that was happening outside. The banging sound was from the shutters being tossed against the window by the wind. The only comparison I can draw is to the monsoons in India or the floods in Argentina. I’m serious; the rain was crying more rain, and the clouds wrecked chests-heaving sobs. It was almost like the world was taking a moment to feel out all of our classes’ sadness so it would drain it all and only leave joy.
Swallowing down worry, we finished our faces— the brave ones under the handsome ones. Luckily, by the time the guests have arrived, any tears and rain have stopped coming down. Downstairs, I saw some alumni and that same feeling as seeing your dog courses through me when seeing those warm familiar faces. Receiving the garnet bracelets adds another tick to the finality of graduating. We then were released to the cocktail hour to see more familiar faces or search for some familiarity in a new face.
After cocktail hour, which was full of laughter and hugs, we made our way down to dinner. Dinner included more smiles and bellies full of food. I could tell through the reflection in the eyes of many as they took in the fairy lights, Tuscan scenery, and beautiful attire, their pulses sang with celebration.
Just prior to walking towards the stage and all that it represents, we turn to see Kojo there. I swear he was placed there by a gift of fate because you could hear the tension release from our shoulders as we laughed at the situation. With unfortunate fortune, he rejected our invitation for him to walk with us up to the stage. As we were called to the stage, that underlying uncertainty turned to determination as we all held our heads high and walked with the conviction of people who were ready to face forward. In the words of our keynote speaker, Karl Lokko, we put the fear behind us, and it to project us forward.
As graduations go, the TGS ceremony isn’t a normal one– but it was typical of a TGS graduation ceremony. Joann opened the ceremony, followed by our Keynote speaker, Karl Lokko, a poet who advises the UK on policy concerning gang violence, gave us some of his words. With wisdom from these two old souls sinking in, we began the speeches, videos, and whole graduating business.
When it came to the speeches, some were hilarious bordering professionally funny, some were tearjerkers, some told a wave joke, some forgot their diplomas on the podium, some had the audience ‘aww’-ing, some accidently got up too soon, and all were so brutally truthful our hearts swelled with how we all actually and honestly love the true person after truly getting to know everyone. In fact, all of the speeches spoke with a depth that had everyone’s emotions, sunshine, and personality on display after being hidden in whatever pits they were shoved into because ‘IB’. Similarly, all of the videos hit the mark with each person’s personality– the way they began, the footage collected, and how people reflected upon the last two, three, four, or five years.
My most distinct memory from that night is Fatima looking back at me after I sat down: “We did it Cami, we really did it.” This moment, both of us there, with laurels on our heads, diplomas in one hand and the other’s hand in the other, four years wiser, was the moment we dreamed about from the moment that we met each other over Skype and watched the notebook and what we talked about before going to bed under the covers, eating crackers, and watching the same episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians with Spanish subtitles.
When Sydney gave the final words of the final speech, we all sat with this sense of calm. We watched the video, and saw the extent of our growth in the celebration of our differences and a washing of memories.
I didn’t realize in that moment as I stared around me at this family, that in the following hours, we would all tear up the dance floor. Some would reminisce next to the Duomo at 3am how quickly you forget about bed checks, and I would leave a kiss stain on my diploma. The new memories washing over me in my lack of a hangover the next day, I would both literally and metaphorically tightly embrace my community. As I wiped my eyes reliving that last hug on my drive back to Rome before getting on an airplane to California within 40 hours of graduating, I ripped off my Band-Aid that had covered my final mark of TGS. Admiring this scar left on my soul and skin, I came to understand that the memories from my experience in High School would be some of the most beautiful ones.
With love in their hearts, the third global graduating class of 2016 threw the laurels off their head and the sound of celebration came ricocheting off of 13 vocal chords as 13 graduates embraced each other and the future.