My hometown of Macon, Georgia offers a few certainties to those who pass their lives there. It is a certainty that you will go to the Cherry Blossom festival every year and that during the week-long celebration the window of every shop and the face of every child will be graced with pink paint. It is a certainty that you have a Wal-Mart that you call “your” Wal-Mart, a Kroger that you call “your” Kroger. It is a certainty that you will scoff as you drive past our one Dunkin Donuts on your way to one of our two Krispy Kremes, even if they’re out of your way. It is a certainty that someone you know will die, often too young and often violently. It is not a certainty, however, that you will graduate.
Graduation is, for many people, the end. It is seen not as a springboard to the collegiate world and whatever lies beyond, but as a dusty red ribbon at the end of a particularly grueling 5K. To those people have difficulty conceiving of a place so seemingly devoid of ambition, allow me to set the scene. Our school system is one in which math teachers have an average retention period of less than one year. It is a system in which principals are reduced, reused, and recycled from jobs they don’t care about to jobs they aren’t qualified for. The current principal at my alma mater was “promoted” directly from her job as an assistant principal at an elementary school to the captain of a sinking, mutinous ship.
Students are treated as dangerous, not allowed sweatpants or opaque backpacks for fear that they might conceal knives or guns. But we are also treated as children, forced as legal adults still to be escorted to the bathroom by an administrator if we need to go during class. Is it any wonder, then, that we get worn down? That our hopes get eroded when the handful of teachers worth having trickle out of the system slowly but surely like water out of a cracked glass? In a system where each and every student is expected to carry a dual burden of infantilization and forced adulthood, why wouldn’t some just cast it off as soon as they could? Sometimes, when I lie awake at night and stare up at the glow-in-the-dark stars that I’ve pasted to my ceiling as an attempt to recapture my youthful enthusiasm, I envy them.
I was one of the few, the proud, the graduates. The graduation rate in my county while I was in high school was, at its lowest, 50 percent. Someone flipped a coin and decided your fate, and it probably wasn’t you. Maybe it was the interim superintendent who was instated after the last one absconded with thousands of dollars of embezzled funds. Maybe it was your freshman year principal, or one of the other three that would inevitably cycle through your high school as one after another gave up. Maybe it was God, whose temples adorned both sides of every street yet whose presence was nowhere to be found in our gilded metropolis.
Despite all that, graduation weekend in Bibb County is a veritable orgy of adolescent celebration on par with prom or the night of the first victory of the football season. All seven of our public high schools matriculate in rapid succession at the underwhelming Macon Centreplex, our catch-all venue: home to the yearly Friends of the Library book sale, an Elton John concert in 2000, and one speech by Donald Trump. There is nowhere else to go. The people in charge of scheduling try to be fair, so the order of the ceremonies cycles through a set of timeslots each year, starting Friday morning and ending Sunday morning. My year, we got the prized Saturday morning slot by sheer luck—all the more surprising because of how little of it had been going around by that time in our lives.
Efficiency is one of the top priorities of the event planners—as soon as one school’s graduates are evacuated, the next school’s are pulling in, putting on their caps and gowns, and having their family members take the same picture of them a hundred times from slightly different angles. Of course, safety is also a priority. In Macon, notable events like football games and graduations have always been prime stomping grounds for rival high schools—and rival gangs—to establish their dominance by fracturing the cheerful hum of school spirit with a bullet or two. Every football game that pitted two rival high schools against each other came with a guarantee that there would be violence, both on the field and off. The parking lot of Henderson Stadium is not a place to linger.
My sophomore year there were shots fired, and we all thought it was such fun as we dropped to the ground. My mother forbid me from going to any more games against Westside after that. I was furious, because at the time I thought that being willingly near danger was a life experience that had to be undergone in the crucible of adolescence—and also because I was dating our band’s lead flautist, and in my naiveté believed that it would last forever. What kind of girlfriend would I be if I didn’t go to support him at every game just because there would be a few measly gunshots? A cowardly one, that’s what. But I digress.
For almost every student that walks across the stage in May, there is one who doesn’t. One who has dropped out to care for her child alone, still but a child herself. One who has died in a car crash on the way to school, and whose mother still maintains a roadside shrine of her—complete with an angelic photo of her in her band uniform, flute aloft, without any fear or even an inkling of how little time she had left. One who has been shot by accident when gang members fired into the wrong apartment. One who has died a senseless death in a Fuddrucker’s after eating a macadamia nut that had been cooked on the same tray as a peanut butter one, died in his mother’s arms as the EpiPen failed her and the injustice of the world impressed itself upon her. Their names aren’t on the program.
I remember my trivial thoughts from that morning so strongly. There was a great bustle behind the scenes as everyone got last-minute yearbook signatures and draped themselves in pre-approved medals and tassels. No one decorated their hats, because we weren’t allowed to. I wanted to make a speech, but I wasn’t important enough. As we finally lined up in alphabetical order, the girl behind me had her arms draped possessively around my aforementioned flautist, claiming his attention just as she had when we were dating. And even though we had amicably broken up two years ago, and even though the love of my life was in the audience putting up with my extended family as a sacrifice at the altar of our love, I was bothered. I remember smirking to the radiant valedictorian, my very best friend, as if to say: “Can you believe this shit? Some things never change.”
That wasn’t true, at least not entirely. For those who saw graduation as a springboard, those who had been handed G.T.A.G.—Going To Absolutely Graduate—tickets covered in glitter as cheap as the sentiment behind them, this day was the beginning of the rest of our certainly-thrilling and oh-so-fulfilling lives. We thought we would all stay in touch, but time revealed that perhaps we had less in common than we thought. After all, relationships forged on the battlefield rarely survive a change of scenery intact.
Many of my class were the first to graduate from their families, and many would be the last. Most danced across the stage, both out of pride at their accomplishments and relief at finally having to accomplish no more. Some families politely clapped and some blew airhorns. We weren’t allowed to throw our plain white hats, even though no one told us why. Parents of the deceased walked the stage in the place of their children, and at that moment, I was ashamed.
I spent my life in Macon, working hard and trying my best to stay out of the unpredictable path that harm had left like a scar across our city. For all that, the last image I have is still Nashandra Finney’s mother crossing the stage and collecting her diploma at that damned graduation. At Nashandra’s candlelight vigil months before, her mother thanked me for coming and told me that Nashandra had always considered me a friend. She and I went to school together for ten years. We had the same classmates and faculty, the same desires to live and—dare we dream—succeed, the same irremovably deep roots in that place. We were not different, not really. But someone flipped a coin and decided our fates, and it wasn’t me, and it wasn’t her.