Asking Questions

“Anyway, what do you think, Gramps?”

We’re in the midst of a long conversation where my granddaughter has been explaining the options lying ahead as high school graduation approaches.  She’s university-bound for sure, but where and to do what are still up in the air.  She already has acceptances from five schools, pending submission of final marks and other documentation, and the choice really is hers.  An array of forms from the different schools is scattered on the table in front of us.

My first post-secondary foray began more than sixty years ago, so I’m hardly an informed source for her to be consulting, but this conversation has more to do with our relationship than with my expertise.  All five of my grandchildren—siblings and cousins—have always afforded me this courtesy when faced with decisions affecting their lives.

I attribute that to the upbringing they’ve received from their parents—my two daughters and their husbands.  My wife and I benefit from the affection and respect for elders that has been inculcated in the children in both families.  Even as we become increasingly irrelevant, we remain cherished.

The kids have always been encouraged by their parents to make intelligent choices when they face significant decisions, but more importantly, they’ve been helped to learn strategies for doing that.  They’ve learned to distinguish between fact and opinion, between truth and falsehood, between goodwill and venality.  They’ve learned to assess the multitude of sources of information they encounter—and to favour those that are fact-based, that are truth-oriented, that appear to advance the common good.

They were encouraged to learn from their mistakes, too, and to understand that failure can be a springboard to important learning.

Along the way, their parents also learned an important lesson, just as my wife and I did while raising our girls: when you help children learn to think for themselves, be prepared for the fact that they may eventually think differently on certain issues than you do.

In any event, here I am being asked my thoughts about my granddaughter’s options going forward.  Stroking my chin thoughtfully, I say, “Do you have a particular favourite at this point?”

“I like a couple better than the others, I guess.  But they’re all good.”

“What are the things you like that might sway your thinking?”

After a moment, she begins talking about how the academic opportunities at each school might best blend with her as-yet-unfinalized career decisions, including co-op work experience.  She talks about where her friends might be going; about the advantages of living in residence, away from home; about the extra-curricular opportunities at each school; about part-time job possibilities around campus; and about the costs associated with each choice.

“Well, you’re certainly considering a lot of factors,” I say.  “Are there any deal-breakers or must-haves?”

“There were,” she says.  “And I’ve already eliminated schools that don’t offer things I feel are important.”

“What about dead-ends?” I ask.  “What are the chances you could find yourself constrained at any of the schools if you decide to switch majors a year or two in?”

She nods as she takes this in, jots a quick note to herself on a sheet of paper listing all the schools.

“That could happen,” I add, reflecting on my own experience those many years ago, when I switched universities after finally deciding on a teaching career following graduation from a journalism program.

“Yeah, and I need to consider the possibility of post-grad work, too,” she says, circling the names of two of the schools.

“For sure!” I say, marvelling at her long focus.

“Okay, Gramps, thanks for your advice!” she says, gathering up her papers.  With a kiss on my cheek and a loving hug, she bounces out of the room.

Advice?  All I did was ask a few questions.  You don’t need advice from me!

“Let me know what you decide,” I call after her.  And I comfort myself that perhaps asking questions was the best thing I could have done because, like my other four grandchildren, this little girl knows how to think for herself.

And what do I think?  I think that’s good!

A Graduation

Our grandson, David, one of five grandchildren we are blessed to have—the only boy among four girls, his two sisters and two cousins—has graduated high school.  Because of the pandemic currently assailing the world, he, like so many others, was deprived of the formal commencement he would otherwise have enjoyed.

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And so—undeterred by the Covid-constraints, but mindful of the necessary precautions—fifteen of us gathered recently for a by-invitation-only, less-formal ceremony to honour his achievement.  Three generations of family attended—four grandparents, two parents, two pairs of aunts and uncles, and his sisters and cousins.

Oh, and one rambunctious dog!

For Nana and me, he is the second of our grandchildren to graduate, his older cousin having done so last year.  But for his paternal grandparents, he is the first.  It was a joyous celebration, properly socially-distanced, held outdoors on the grounds of their expansive home on a glorious, sunlit afternoon.  The dress was summer-casual, no caps and gowns to be seen, but the sense of occasion was as high as it would have been in the most somber, traditional commencement exercise.

Our families have always prized education and lifelong learning, a value that has, to our immense satisfaction, been assimilated by the youngest among us.

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Almost everyone took the opportunity to address the graduate, commending him for his achievement.  But it was I who was granted the honour of delivering the more formal remarks, a task I gladly embraced.  Given the relaxed setting, I wanted to find a suitable mix of lightness and seriousness, of witticism and import, something that might be enjoyed at the time and remembered long after.

And of course, I did not want to ramble on too long, knowing that once the dog lost interest, so, too, might the rest of my audience.

 I began by welcoming the graduate to an exclusive club—

If we trace a straight line to you from Granddad and Grandma, from Nana and me, through your parents, you are the seventh member to join this exclusive club of high school graduates.

There are other high school grads here today, of course, but none of them runs down that same line of succession as you.  There are no secret handshakes for this club, no secret passwords, no class ring; but there is one mandatory ritual to which you must adhere, now that you are a member—namely, whenever one of the older members wants a hug, you must stand and deliver.

A few chuckles greeted this opening, along with a smile and nod from our grandson.  Hugs have always been popular in our extended family.

After describing and commending him for his scholastic achievements, graduating with high honours, I spoke about his parents—

I want to mention two people who have reason to be prouder than any of us today—your Dad and your Mum.  You’re drawing from a pretty amazing genetic pool, as I’m sure you know, and you are blessed to have them as parents.  

If I had a magic wand, and if I could wave it over all the children in the world, my wish would be that every one of them could have a father like your Dad and a mother like your Mum.

I dared not look at either of them at this point, for fear of choking up myself, and I managed to continue—

Long before Granddad, Grandma, Nana, and I were grandparents, we were parents.  And so, we have a pretty good understanding of how your Dad and Mum feel about you because we have had the same feelings for our own children.  For as long as your parents live, you will be their pride and joy because, just as you are blessed, so, too, are you a blessing to them—and to all of us in your extended family.

I went on to spend a few moments talking about that extended family, because I believe it is important for this young man to appreciate his heritage—

David, you bear a very proud name—Whittington.  And you carry in equal measure the names of three other proud families—Wigglesworth, Eaton, Burt.  You are the sole, male iteration of these four families going forward.  For the rest of your life, you will carry all of us within you.

Another reason for including that was to recognize the contributions made by all four families to the person he has become.  His four grandparents do not delude ourselves into believing we deserve the credit; that goes rightly to his parents and to the young man himself.  But the nurturing of extended family does count for something, after all.

I concluded my remarks by telling the graduate what we, his family members, expect of him as he steps into the next phase of his life—

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With that in mind, I have two thoughts to leave you with, and I hope I can speak for all four families.  First, we expect you—we expect you—to conduct yourself always with honour—honouring our families, honouring your parents and your sisters, and honouring yourself. 

To paraphrase the poet, Gibran, we do not seek to make you like us, for life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday. But if past is prologue, we are confident you will forever justify our faith in you.

Fusce honorem omnium!  Choose honour above all!

By this time, my eyes were more than moist and my throat was closing up with emotion, but I managed to choke out my final words—

Second, perhaps most importantly, we want you to know this, to remember this—wherever you go, whatever paths you choose to follow, whatever you do with your life, if ever there comes a time when you need help or support:  All of us, w’ve got your back. We’ve got your back!

We love you, David!  Congratulations!

A ripple of applause and an echoing chorus of congratulations washed over us as we touched elbows—no hug, unfortunately, during this pandemic period.  The noise woke the dog—who, apparently, had been less-than-inspired by my address—and his rollicking antics quickly dissolved the formality of the moment into the shambolic ambiance that is more typical of our family gatherings.

And he got all the hugs!

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It has been almost sixty years since my own high school graduation, and I confess I have no memory of the commencement ceremony I must have attended.  But I harbour the hope that our grandson will long remember his, not for my speech, but for the love his family has for him, the love that brought us all together to honour him.

Carpe diem!