Monday, June 10, 2013

Everything They Never Expected

June 5, 2013
Everything they never expected...

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree,
it will live its whole life feeling stupid and worthless.”

Yesterday I attended my granddaughter's graduation. I've attended a lot of them in my day, but none so unique and moving. You see, it was an alternative high school. You know, the ones we way too easily stuff chock full of humans we have insensitively labeled as unwed mothers, druggies, credit deficient, stoners, goths...losers, even.

We'd be wrong.

What I learned is that Valley High School is battalion of heroes. It was full of them...all these fish that, no matter how they tried, could never climb that tree of mainstream education.

Their graduation theme was: “Everything we never expected.”

Which, in fact, was true for everyone attending. All of them, at one time or another (or for a long time), never expected this particular group's graduation to be their reality. But here they were, graduates surrounded by loved ones, experiencing what this coming of age ceremony really means.

They were as diverse a group as I've ever seen all in one room together. There were limos parked out front, right alongside beat up sedans on their last leg...or tire, so to speak. There were sassy women all dressed up like a Sunday fashion show with skin-tight dresses straining against their ample girth. Some were wearing wide-brimmed hats calling each other “Miss Thang” and being hurried down the aisle by the menfolk, who book-ended neon shirts and pants with fedoras and white shoes. There were girls with hair the color of blood against their white graduation gowns, and every other color of the rainbow. Most heads had at least one part shaved or dyed, most bodies bore multiple tattoos and piercings. Some were scrawny fragile little victims of bullying, or bulky, tough girls used to being the only one to stand up for themselves. Some were laid back islanders wearing shades and stacks of leis. At least one was chock full of artistic talent no one used to know about. (Yeah, I mean you, Gabby!) All of them smiled, the amazement of reaching this day reflecting the miraculous in their eyes.

Their speeches were not typical, not focused on all the future holds for them, or how they'll change the world. Instead, they talked about the battlefields of their lives, how the world changed them, who was and wasn't there for them, and the paths full of punishment, neglect, indifference, and trauma that led them to today. They spoke with love about the family they had become at VHS, and how their lives were different now because of that. They shared their most vulnerable moments about eating lunch alone in the bathroom, and having nearly two years of clean time. One even had to leave high school to care for her mother, who'd had a severe health issue and found this school that would work with her towards graduation. This motherless girl caring for her mother still found a place to have a high school experience uniquely designed to meet her needs.

I was most impressed by the speech of a girl whose pale face was framed by paler blue hair. She spoke of diversity and what happens when one does not fit in. She was powerful, eloquent and intelligent. She moved me, made me want to be a better person. I later saw her without the graduation gown in booty shorts with lines of cut marks down her thighs. She was at once walking wounded and warrior.

If you are listening, powers that be, this is how quality, compassionate organizations touch the lives of the fish who don't climb trees!! If you give them a place to swim? They will change the world!

-S. Westenskow, grandmother of graduate Gabrielle Ann Jeffery, Class of 2013 


  1. Thank you Shirley. I will be beginning my eighth year as a counselor a Valley High School in the Fall. You captured the essence of Valley beautifully. I have shared your blog with many co-workers. Every nod we get is so appreciated.

  2. The alternative high schools fill a vital role for a wide variety of reasons. Take one of my sons for example. Throughout his schooling he always got A's or F's depending on whether he liked the class or not (math, science, music A; English, history and such not so much). Until his last semester of his senior year, he didn't even care whether he graduated or not. He went to the local continuation school that semester. He decided he wanted to graduate, and nothing stopped him. Passing all classes, even English and such. It's been a few years, but now he's working on a degree in microbiology, or some such thing.