There is only one award announced at graduation. "I wish I would get it," she said in the same voice she's wished for a Court Princess tiara and the glittering big-money awards. Shiny prizes gone to other hands.
"Why? Does it matter? Is there an award attached?"
"No, no money. Just the students and teachers all vote. It's for best all-around."
"And they hand out a cup?"
"No. I don't think so. They just say your name."
"Hmh. Is there a chance?"
"Well. So who do you think it will be?"
"Ben maybe. Or Eric. Emily Munro."
"Yeah. They're all great students. But you're a great student, too. You know that. I know that. One cup that isn't even a cup isn't going to change who you really are, is it?"
Such a mother-thing to say.
But really. The diminishment inherent in the giving of awards.
From the moment the long procession began to wind its way around the track to the graduation pavilion I trained the camera's lens on her, watching her through its small aperture. Who but she will ever fulfill the promise that is herself?
All the young women in their black robes held sunflowers. But even from far away, I could recognize my girl. I could pick her out in a hundred dear and familiar ways. To me she seemed to glow from the crowd.
Sitting in the bleachers, all in our deep-seated biases, we watched our own young people file in and find their seats together, side by side.
And then it was her name they called.
From far up near the top of the stadium bleachers, I watched her face turn from polite attention to confusion, embarrassment and pleasure. But the rest of the crowd were not watching her. They were each watching their own. Each young face the focus of a highly partisan party of supporters.
"It's a gratifying thing, hm?" said my mother in my ear. "To see a daughter recognized?"
But I had recognized her already. Had already dismissed the cup that was no cup. Had heard already, years ago, her name called inside me, inside my heart.
Gratifying? I felt a bobbing up inside. Pleased that Eldest was pleased. Her face like a fountain of light. But no warm rush of public justification. None of the tight diminishment of pride, the smallness of trophy cups even when they're real. Floating free of the self-justifying approval that always I have felt awards confer and revoke at the very same time.
I found myself sitting in the welcome sun after weeks of rain. Thinking of a bleached shell on a window sill somewhere. Felt myself emptied and at ease.
I found myself watching all the other faces. The faces of young adults who once were children with whom I have sat over math pages or in a small half circle reading all together aloud. Children who have dripped tears on my sleeve when they fell. When their best friend turned traitor.
Children who became teens who have arched up into the air to make the winning point, or to miss. Who have gotten the starring roles. And those who have walked away dejected. Young people who have run with grace, chin up, strong arched rib cage breaking the ribbon. Who have doggedly kept trying with unconscious courage. Who have played jazz with self-forgetting concentration. Those who have scowled into an open book, their back up against the tile wall. Who have laughed at their own cleverness. Who have planted a hundred trees. Trained an unbroken hourse. Rebuilt the engine of a truck to run on electricity. Taught second graders how to swim. Who have been kind behind the scenes and brilliantly funny out under the lights.
And then she sat down again, my daughter, among her cohort, her schoolmates. And the principal called out the name of every student, one by one, Eldest's name among them, as one among them. And each came forward as the crowd applauded every one. And when they had all sat down again, and only then, as one, they reached hands up to their ridiculous caps and moved the silly tassels from one side to the other, moving together, passing together over a moment's arbitrary threshold, the way a body passes through a gate.
This is the class of 2010. There are good hands and wise heads, strong shoulders and brave hearts coming forward now.
I know. I've seen them and recognized them.