"As we waited for my daughter's class to enter the arena [for their high school graduation ceremony], I did not even recognize the languages being spoken around us, nor could I place much of the native dress worn by mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. Our little nuclear family group seemed so contained, so introverted, and so northern European, surrounded as we were by huge clans of people from Latin America and Africa. When the band struck up the entrance march and the students began filing in, huge roars went up from the crowd. This was more like World Cup soccer (although the school board specifically had banned vuvuzelas) than any high school graduation in my experience. When they called out the graduates by name, nearly everyone ignored the directive to hold their applause. Instead, families hooted and whistled, waved banners, and made a ruckus of praise for their son or daughter. I knew the exercises would be long, but I never guessed they would be so loud.
"At first I felt uncomfortable. My husband, perhaps sensing this, said, 'Notice – almost every group that cheers is an immigrant family. I bet their children are the first to graduate from an American school!' He went on, 'For some of these folks, the students might be the very first to ever go so far in school. That's the whole reason they came here. They're noisy because they are so grateful.'
"Although we certainly could not survey every family from where we were sitting, it appeared he was right. We were not just at a graduation. We were sitting in an arena of thanksgiving, where hundreds of people were feeling grateful together. Some were thankful a son or daughter did well and anticipated the new adventure of college ahead. For them, graduation was a growing-up marker, a pause on the road toward the next thing, and they were offering appropriate thanks for a job well done. Others, however, seemed wildly grateful for this single moment as an all-out celebration for a goal achieved, the fruit of family sacrifice, the reward of a new life in a place of safety and success, the fulfillment of a dream.
"As I watched all these new Americans rejoice, my soul moved from discomfort to appreciation. I felt thankful for the school district and teachers who made this miracle happen, for this good use of our taxes, and for the neighborhood that is home for all of us. As more and more graduates came forward, the crowd got louder and louder. Eventually, a kind of uninhibited thankfulness swept everyone – including our small family – into its chorus. When the last name was called, the graduates threw their caps in the air and released primal whoops of joy. Families jumped from their seats, shouting bravo and pumping fists into the air. People poured out of the exits, hugging one another, laughing and crying and taking pictures. Amid the thousands, a spontaneous litany emerged: 'What a great day!' 'We're so proud of you!' 'Thank you, Jesus!' 'Mom and dad, thanks so much!'
"It was hard to find our daughter amid the grateful mob. But as I searched, I enjoyed winding through the crowd of my neighbors – from all social classes, from many races and nations – and eavesdropping on their thankfulness. I thought back to Saguaro, where a single clergyperson gave a benediction – a prayer of blessing – as our graduation ended. We had waited for someone to lead us in gratitude. Here, there had been no religious professional to offer up our thanksgiving. Instead, we had done it ourselves. It was not particularly reverent, but it was fun."