Five years ago I walked across the stage of my high school graduation. I clanged like a mountain goat as I walked to the front with four medals around my neck, three of which were academic departmental awards. I wore my National Honors Society Pin (I was the president) and delivered a valedictorian speech.
By the end of the summer, I was in the hospital being treated for an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Five weeks ago I walked across the stage of my graduation from Seattle University. I didn’t wear a single medal or pin. I did wear an honors hood, but it was for a Magna Cum Laude GPA rather than Summa Cum Laude. My name was listed in the program for the two years I had spent in the Honors Program, but I stayed firmly in my seat while the student address was given. I hadn’t won any awards.
But that morning I had eaten breakfast. I hadn’t had a panic attack in months. I didn’t remotely want to hurt myself. In other words, I was graduating from college the healthiest I had been in years.
It bothered me, at first, standing outside KeyArena while some of the other students clanged like mountain goats. My neck felt bare, and I remonstrated myself for not working hard enough. If only I had studied a little more, or worked a little harder, or maybe if I was smarter, I could have been one of the students dripping with awards.
But then I thought about how hard I had worked. I thought about the Honors classes that challenged me more than I thought possible, or the late nights spent researching for papers I thought might kill me. I thought about the way my intellectual world had expanded and my interactions with the world had deepened. And while I spent a lot of time studying, I had also done a lot of other meaningful things. I had been in three full-length plays and two one-acts, taken voice lessons, spent a brief time on a kayak team, been a member of a peer health team on campus, and worked regularly during junior and senior year. I had also pursued my own passions, and built important relationships with friends. Every quarter had its own unique challenges, and sometimes, just getting through to the next one was the biggest victory. There were the long nights I wasn’t sure I could survive, the disappointments and setbacks and personal tragedies that I sometimes thought might drown me. There was last spring, when I found myself checking into the hospital, unsure of whether I could keep myself safe through the week much less graduate.
Not all accomplishments show up in gilt letters on diplomas or are announced during ceremonies. A medal isn’t proof of the mettle it takes to deal with the world. The things I am proudest of don’t have anything to do with my GPA or my class standing. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who have worked for their accomplishments, but I also know that there are lots of amazing, talented young people who weren’t lucky enough to have the support that I did or get help when they needed it. The piece of paper I earned after four years is an accomplishment, but the bigger one is being alive, healthy, and full of hope for the future.