Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

Fiction: For the Graduation Speech

BT 15 Graduation Speech ARTBy Ellen Lesser

In the graduation speech I won’t give at the therapeutic academy, I’d tell them all how cute you were when you were little, with your one dimple that showed up more when your cheeks were round and those hazel eyes, crazy big. Cute and smart as could be and so good—easy, at least that’s the way I remember it, though certain relatives and professionals would say that’s because I let you do whatever you wanted.

Didn’t set limits or enforce consequences, two things you’re getting in spades in the intensely restrictive school program, on the theory that the extreme dosage now can correct for the early deficiency.

For the graduation speech I won’t give, I’d be that shameless parent who puts on a slide show. I wouldn’t wind it all the way back. Let’s say we kick it off with that shot of you in your high chair on your first birthday, presiding over the gleeful wreck of strawberry shortcake, your face and what hair you had, your bare chest and arms slathered with fresh whipped cream.

Later, once you were almost a teenager, you demanded to know why I’d dressed you for the occasion in only a diaper, like that wasn’t obvious. Like it constituted some form of abuse. Of course in the rest of the slides you’d have clothing on. How about that great Halloween costume: the big, reversible satin cape I sewed, red with white stars on one side, solid blue on the other, lightning bolts stitched onto your pilot cap, and on the front of your sweatshirt, the shield with the big golden “S.” Super Suzie.

And what would the soundtrack be? I could pull out the stops and find that cassette we ordered from the kids’ magazine. We filled in the card and physically mailed it, then waited the predicted eight weeks. How’s that for deferral of gratification? Ten “very special tunes” with lyrics customized to feature your name, just like the ad promised. Cloying but hopelessly catchy, so naturally you played them over and over, though even once through they got plenty repetitive. I want to sing a song about Suzie. I want to sing a song about Suzie. Let’s sing a song about Su-u-ziestretched to give it three syllables.

Did I really steal into your room one night, slip the tape from your player and make it mysteriously go missing? Or did I just dream about doing that? I remember hysterics and tearing the house apart and finally needing to bribe you with something way cooler, whatever that was right then, thereby, in the words of the treatment team, robbing you of the chance to learn how to self-soothe.

No doubt before long you’d have forgotten it anyway, or grown out of it, like you grew out of a lot of things you once loved: dance classes, art projects, mother-daughter baking, the flute, even basketball. A whole slide deck of leotards and paint-splattered smocks and crisp concert blouses, not to mention the treasured Allen Iverson jersey that started out down to your knees. The requisite, adorable get-ups for all those fun and enriching activities you accused me in our last family therapy session of making you do.

Not that I’ll ever really be showing those.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech I’d give for real at the treatment academy, I’d try my hardest not to embarrass you, though every kid must cringe a little when a parent gets up there, wondering what we’re going to say. You are still teenagers—young adults—despite all the therapy.

It’s an odd tradition, asking the parents to make speeches, since we’ve been so far away, having shipped you off to this place where it takes a whole specialized staff and system of rules and ascending ladder of stages to accomplish what we so spectacularly failed to at home just as mothers and fathers. But actually, calling anything at the school a tradition is kind of a stretch, considering how it only sprang up a few years ago, this outpost of authentic Montana-style lodge buildings tucked up into a wild hillside at the end of a road so remote, only the most in- trepid or desperate or crazy would try running away from it.

The parents who get to stand up and give speeches have kids who didn’t try running away. Who only hiked on the designated trails with their teams farther up into the hills every weekend. Who didn’t find the chance unsupervised moment to, say, touch a boy in the cubby room and get caught, because although the school is co-ed, it runs on the strictest no-contact policy. Who sat down at the end of each day and listened to extensive feedback about their actions and attitude and didn’t tell the staffers charged with providing it to go fuck themselves. Who didn’t pioneer a closet method of home-fermentation, filling Nalgene bottles with grape juice and yeast stolen from the school kitchen, until a whole team of girls was found inexplicably drunk in the dorm one night. Who, even though their families were blowing their college funds or invading 401(K)s or taking out second mortgages for the stunning tuition fees, not only made their beds and kept their own shit picked up but swept floors and scrubbed toilets and washed pots and pans, to help break them of an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Who didn’t talk other kids into forking over their meds for depression or bipolar disorder or ADHD, then crush and snort them in the far bathroom stall when they thought nobody was around to hear and report on them. Who themselves scrupulously followed the code requiring them to come forth about anyone else’s infractions, not because they were sucking up to staff or angling for promotion but because they sincerely bought into this as an act of love, a life-line for the person they ratted on.

“I’m not like some snitch,” you said. But then you got tired of listening to the bulimic girl every night through the wall by the head of your bed. You already had enough trouble sleeping.

The team counselor you told would assure you that had nothing to do with the girl, a week later, smuggling a paring knife out of salad prep and slitting her wrists—not very effectively—then being pulled from the school. But that’s hard to swallow. Which means you either messed her up really bad or actually saved her ass.

Wrapping your head around that: now there’s something to keep you awake at night.

*   *   *

In the speech I’d like to deliver for your graduation, I’d leave out that part of the story. Forget the setbacks and stumbling blocks, the delays and demotions, all the scary-bad or just stupid shit that made the odds of my standing up there seem impossibly slim. Better to keep it light and upbeat. Beginnings are good that way. So I’d tell about our arrival at Glacier Airport in the dead of the night that first time. What was the end of one road but the start of this new—let’s call it journey, a popular word in the lingo there. I’d booked us on the last flight into Glacier, a plane we’d only make if we hit no snags earlier. Such a long way from home for us, and we weren’t even starting from home. Home, which already you hadn’t seen in three months, since you first shipped out for wilderness treatment. But at least that was wilderness Eastern Standard Time. That’s where our day began, before dawn, under the canvas tarp you strung for us between trees in the Family Transition Camp.

“Montana: is that even a state?”

That’s what you asked your field counselor when she delivered the news about your therapeutic boarding school placement. Because of course, you weren’t coming back to our house and your regular high school—not yet. Twelve weeks in the woods was only Phase One of the cure for what all was ailing you.

In the letter I wrote that same week, I admitted I’d had to pull out your old atlas myself to check the location. (This could make a good laugh line for the speech: Geography had never been an “A” subject for either one of us.) But then I assured you the distance on a map didn’t matter, since once we got you out there, traversing it would be on me, and I’d come see you, whatever it took, as often as the school let me.

That sounded fair enough—smart—when I said it. But by the time we rode the rental SUV out of the forest to the base office, where you took your first actual shower in twelve weeks, and cruised the couple-hundred miles back to the airport from which the wilderness transporters had collected you; by the time we flew across the plains to the eastern slope of the Rockies then over the mountains up to Salt Lake; by the time the western night had fallen and deepened and we boarded the tiny prop plane through this weird cross between cattle stalls and gates at a bus depot, and roared over an expanse of unbroken black to touch down at the one brilliantly lit, empty terminal, it might as well be the moon we had landed on.

Mom,” you said in that tone you reserve for me and me alone, that particular mix of outrage and disappointment, like the world is this appalling place and my fault on general principle. That’s when you spotted it, in a giant glass case between us and the one baggage carousel. Our eyes were so bleary from traveling, so struck by the glare, it looked to be out in the open just standing there. “What the fuck is that?”

It was a mountain goat, though I didn’t know that yet. A massive billy with its lush coat of pure white and curving horns and great beard and kind but no-nonsense expression. I stared into the glassy black eyes, out of which it appeared to gaze back at me.

“Is it real?” you said.

“I think so. But dead. You know, stuffed.”

You gawked at me not so much like I’d just stated the obvious, but as if I’d killed the creature and performed the taxidermy myself. “And you decided to send me somewhere they’d have this Thing in the airport—why exactly?”

At that moment I had no answer. Do I have one now? But I’ve lost my thread. Why was I thinking the arrival bit would work well for the speech again?

Something about beginnings—that’s right. How distant and alien it all seemed, unlikely as the mountain goat greeting us at one in the morning, this sentinel at the gate to another world. How maybe you had to go that far out to find your way home again.

How we passed through that portal and stepped into the Montana night air, which was thinner and smelled different—dry—I guess. How we climbed into another rental car and steered toward the town, along a road littered with motels and fast-food places. How even driving that strip you sensed something. Lowered your window and stuck out your head.

“Oh my god, Mom—the sky. It’s so big. How is that even possible?”

When we hit a red light I looked too, through the neon wink of a pawn-shop sign, and saw what you meant. The sky was bigger than ours back east—exponentially—though strictly speaking that didn’t make sense, since really it was the same one.

Why did this suddenly fill me with a mad hope? The sky itself, but more, the fact that you noticed it.

*   *   *

In the graduation speech that runs through my head, I follow that train. I don’t mention the silence in which we drove the dirt track up to the school the next morning, or the emptiness I felt once I left you there. I don’t say I had to pull over at the base of the hill to beat back the voice shouting this was all a mistake, and I should go scoop you up and fly you back home with me.

In the speech I still hear myself giving sometimes when the roaring stops, I stick to the positive. How I looked forward all week to those Thursday nights, for the scheduled phone call we had once your homework and chores were done. How I had to pinch myself to believe it really was you, given what you were telling me: that you actually liked your school classes, not just because there were boys but because you could feel your brain starting to work again. That the academic subjects were cool but art was your favorite. That you were busy and working hard and actually happy in a way you’d forgotten you knew how to be. That you missed me and loved me—how long had I gone without hearing that?—and were counting the weeks until my next visit there. That you’d earned your Stage Two pro- motion, so when I came, after family therapy, we could leave the school grounds for a whole afternoon. That you’d made Stage Three, so you could stay with me at my motel overnight, and we could tour Glacier National Park, try to spot a live mountain goat.

So when did it change? When did things start to turn again?

You won your Stage Four promotion, which meant that if you kept on course, you’d graduate in three months. But part of how you earned that bump was ratting the puker out. Is that what started to eat at you? The guilt, or maybe the jealousy, since she was gone? Or was it the community service glitch?

You were gung-ho about that requirement: twenty volunteer hours for a local non-profit or charity. After all, hadn’t you spent the past year and some reawakening empathy? Habitat for Humanity seemed like an excellent cause: helping fix up vacant buildings in town so homeless people could live in them. We talked right after you worked your first shift. (In Stage Four, you could call whenever you wanted to.) You were crying so hard I could barely make out what you were telling me. Something about an abandoned crack house—”like, what the fuck?” About how there were pills everywhere: stuffed behind the rank toilet, under the piss-smelling mattresses, inside the slashed-up, mildewed upholstery. How you couldn’t believe they’d send a crew of kids with drug problems into a place like that.

I kept saying I was sorry, that someone had clearly made a mistake. You didn’t have to go back, you’d switch over to some other agency. I figured it was the unspeakable squalor that got to you, but maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe the vision of all those pills—of a life where such freedom and plenty existed—fired that other part of your brain back up.

Maybe you managed to pocket some and smuggle them back with you, because in the calls after that, something wasn’t quite right. I want to say you didn’t sound like yourself but that wouldn’t be true. You sounded like that other Suzie, the one before wilderness therapy. Always some reason for indignation, some run-in with staff or a teacher or another girl on your team; some way that the stage system, the school, the universe, was singling you out for special injustice.

You’d go on about it in that old way you had of cycling up, then catch yourself and apologize; say you’d just had a bad day, you hadn’t been sleeping well. You still talked about graduation, but more and more it was with this speculative, vaguely confrontational air, leading with “if” instead of “when.”

“If I graduate, remember you promised I could get a tattoo.”

“If I graduate, what’ll you say in that speech?”

“If you fly out for graduation, can we skip Glacier Park this time?”

When I saw the school name on the caller ID last night, I had that little thrill I always get when I hear from you, but something else too. I caught myself thinking, what now? then feeling so bad about that, it took me a second to realize it wasn’t your voice but the staff person’s.

She said they weren’t sure how many hours you’d been gone exactly, but probably only a few. They had reinforcements fanning out in the hills, and the local police were putting extra cruisers on the roads to watch out for you.

“What can I do?” Even as I spoke the words, I sensed the cosmic futility, all those thousands of miles away. But she said my job was to stay by the phone, in case you got someplace and tried calling me. ?I was about to ask if that happened—a kid runs away then calls home—but she was still talking. “And praying might help.”

If we’re down to that it doesn’t look good, I thought, but didn’t say that aloud.

I said the same thing I did when I found out there were schools like this: “I’ll try anything.”

*   *   *

The whole time I’m packing, the different speeches spool through my brain. The school people said don’t fly out right away but that made no sense. Of course I need to be there, in case you turn up. Or to hunt for you.

I should start with the meth dens, the crack houses, those sketchy, falling-down places on the wrong side of town. Ask if anyone’s spied a girl with huge eyes, green or brown—it depends on the light; with a dimple that won’t necessarily show that day.

But really, I see myself steering across Glacier Park again, scouring the cliffs and crags like we did when we searched for the mountain goats. I picture the nanny and kid—perfect miniature—materialized on that ledge, as if our wishing had conjured them. And suddenly it’s like the first time we took that drive on Going to the Sun Highway.

I’d read the warnings: this trip was not for the queasy. And yet it led off mildly enough, winding through woods along boulder-strewn streambeds, and I thought, I can handle this. Then we started to climb, threading the switch-backs up, up, up until my gaze slid sideways and I glimpsed the sheer drop—three-thousand feet downward to the glinting seam of the river below, not so much as a guardrail between us and that gorgeous oblivion.

Vertigo. It would occur to me later that was the sensation but it struck like pure terror, paralysis. And it came to me, we could die like this. Then it hit me I couldn’t let on how afraid I was. I’m the grown-up, I had to push through. Plus oxygen—maybe that’s what I needed. A while back we’d shut all the windows, the gusts had gotten so strong. Now I scanned the dashboard and punched AC, cranked the fan dial.

I don’t think you even noticed, you were so awed by the view. The whole attack might have lasted mere seconds, though it felt like much longer. Once I drew in the cool air, the dread lifted and I could go on.

How about that for the graduation speech, if I were still giving it?

Forget graduation, screw the speech, only breathe. But that’s what this loop in my head has become: a method of breathing, a mantra.

In the graduation speech that’s no longer a speech, it’s a meditation, a promise, a plea—

In the speech that was never a speech but a prayer, I ask that you live is all.

Ellen Lesser is at work on a collection of linked short stories about mothers and teenage daughters in crisis. She is the author of The Shoplifter’s Apprentice, The Other Woman, and The Blue Streak. She teaches in the MFA Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also directs the annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference.