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Imperfect Moments

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Sunday, June 07, 2009

I have hated graduations for most of my life.

High school was my best, and it wasn't great: I lost out as valedictorian by one-tenth of a point, and the guys who finished third and fourth behind me both got into Harvard and I didn't. I was heading off to my last choice college, the one that had given me the big scholarship. Still, I was healthy, and my parents were both alive and there. I didn't know yet that right there, that was enough, more than I would ever have again.

I was raped the night before I graduated from college, and then it rained, and my father's new wife was too you-fill-in-the-blank to let him go without her, and I didn't have a ticket for her for the rain venue, so he didn't come. But he did buy me a present, which he left in the trunk of his car. But his car got stolen, and when he got it back the present wasn't there, and of course he said he'd make it up to me at my next graduation.

My father died just months before my law school graduation. That time, no one went, not even me. I started working in Washington the day after my last exam because I literally had no money at all. The idea of flying back to Boston a few weeks later to graduate made no sense: My mother didn't care about going, my sister and brother didn't care about going, and I didn't think I could actually face going. So I stayed away. For years, I felt bad when I'd see the pictures my friends had taken of the whole crowd, of everybody with their families. But then I'd remind myself that it was just as well that I didn't go, because it would have been worse in person.

And so when I started teaching, even though it's customary for professors to go to their students' graduations, I always found an excuse. Bad stomach. Out of town. Ah, a conflict in my schedule. Having skipped my own, brokenhearted, I never attended anyone else's Harvard graduation for the 10 years I taught there.

Still, as the years passed, accommodations were required. I started getting invited to speak at graduations, by people I knew and respected and who sometimes were even offering money. What do you say? Everyone does graduations. So I started going, speaking, putting on a cap and gown once a year.

And I discovered something that I should have known all along. Graduations are full of joy and celebration, but they are also full of broken hearts. It is one of those days when you miss the people you love so much it hurts, when imperfect families and dashed dreams weigh so heavily that you begin to think that everyone else is sitting on top of the world but you.

So here is my message to graduates and their families, learned the hard way. Life is not about the hand you're dealt, but how you play it. There will always be people with better cards. You can curse the fates or do the best with the ones you have. Life isn't fair, but you can be. The world isn't just, but you can still live a life of honor. The happiest people are not the ones with the best cards, but those who play theirs best -- and best doesn't necessarily mean for the greatest financial reward.

If you look around and assume that all those people smiling around you have everything you don't, you'll be wrong, and you may miss noticing what it is that you do have. Not everything turns out for the best, but some things do.

Congratulations.

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