Reflection on Graduations

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

January 20, 2018

This is my own reflection on my experiences with high school graduation. Rough Writer and memoirist, Irene Waters, has linked her monthly prompt, Times Past to the Carrot Ranch Community in an effort to offer a greater breadth of writing opportunities. Literary art can take many forms and creative non-fiction is one. You can join in with Irene’s prompt at her blog site, Reflections, and Nightmares.

Join in an be sure to include your generation and location (rural or urban, country). I’m a Gen-Xer from a rural area in the US, reflecting upon my millennial children’s graduations in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.



When I think of high school graduations in the ‘burbs of the Midwest, I think of how wasteful the expenditure on the parties. We are talking the equivalent of a modern wedding. When I graduated, it was typical for families to have parties go out to dinner, but it was something the immediate family did. My own graduation came at a difficult time in my life and I did not enjoy let alone experience such celebrations.

When my kids each graduated, I was most proud of the fact that they were going to college. I come from uneducated roots and was the first in my father’s family to ever go to college. My children watched me graduate from college and it never occurred to them to think they wouldn’t go. High graduation was important, but not take-a-loan-from-the-bank important to celebrate.

We were the anti-graduation party-poopers of the ‘burbs.

While neighbors scrubbed garages clean and rented huge tents, tables, and chairs, and coordinated with other neighbors to not host parties on the same day (yes, there exists an entire season of grad parties), we celebrated with less pomp and circumstance.

My eldest graduated from an environmental science alternative school known informally as the Zoo School. She and most of her classmates placed importance on their scientific studies and held events like The Recycled Prom where students attending dressed in clothing from thrift stores not the $500 dresses at the Mall of America. They were not materialistic.

However, my eldest daughter graduated naked. Good thing she had a cap and gown, for that was all she wore to step upon the stage to accept her diploma. I didn’t know until I hugged her afterward.

My middle daughter also graduated from the Zoo School but wore a dress. Her graduation infamy came a few weeks later as she was moving out of our house and she accidentally caused a mattress to ignite when one of her friends flicked a cigarette butt and it caught in the box spring of the mattress. Flames lit up the back of their truck in full sight of the swanky grad party going on next door. They stopped, grabbed a garden hose and doused the flames as part-goers gawked.

Embarrassed and not sure what to do with the sodden mattress, my daughter and her friends dragged it around to the backside of the house and propped it up to drain. After they left and it dried enough, the mattress rekindled! And it caught our house on fire. Good thing the grad party was happening next door. Fire trucks arrived and my next door neighbor ran into the house to rescue our pets. We were fortunate that the siding was all that burned.

No one has forgotten the graduation party that the Mills Family tried to burn out.

My son did not graduate from the Zoo School because he wanted to run cross country for our public school. Not only did he not want a party, he didn’t want to walk to receive his diploma. He said college mattered, not high school. He graduated from college twice, once with a BA and again with a Masters. I was there to see him walk both times proud of his accomplishments.

We went out to dinner.

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    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for sharing!

  1. floatinggold

    Sure, graduation is a cause for celebration, but it seems like ANY event now NEEDS a huge ceremony. Doesn’t it kind of cheapen the whole thing?

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Commercialism is a problem with all events it seems and only the strong like Charli’s children or the poverty struck are immune to it with most trying to keep up with the Joneses. It seems to me that the people that benefit are the shops. I have noticed over the last few years that there seems to be a small rebellion starting to happen with Christmas at least but even so the shops still recorded record sales.
      Having said that I don’t think it is a bad thing to acknowledge the effort put in at certain milestones but in Australia, high school isn’t the time but university is when graduation is experienced, although there still isn’t a lot spent on the event.

      • floatinggold

        Certainly. I find it that USA is a leader of the “party for any occasion” pack. Have you heard of divorce parties? It’s really becoming a thing.

      • Annecdotist

        Now that I could buy into! Although I do hope not to have to.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I don’t think there are any winners in divorce and a party wouldn’t make me feel any better. I hope you don’t have to also (and wishing the same for myself).

      • Charli Mills

        It’s the commercialization, the prompting to buy and spend for one’s “occasions.” Divorce parties — perhaps the couple should regift the wedding gifts they received. 😉

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Now that could make for some interesting party action – how many gifts do the ex couple now have to gift back and can they remember who they got them from.

    • Charli Mills

      You know, that’s a good point. We do cheapen it with extravagance. I like making memorable moments.

  2. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Somehow Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days arrived to my head. Those big bashes for high school graduation seem like a very desperate death grip on a time and imagined safety (for many) more of a wake than a celebration and a reluctance to step forward, to move out, on, up…
    and a time to show up (the neighbors) rather than just grow up.
    Your daughter showed her respects to both parents by going commando and flashing. Your pride is yet evident in this fine post.

    • D. Avery @shiftnshake

      I had responded to Irene a while back at her site, but here’s the gist of that in 99 words:

      Having completed just enough courses to graduate, I left high school and home in January for travel in Ireland before starting my out of state summer job early. I returned for graduation in June in my 69 Volvo with a shaggy dog and a bad case of chicken pox. My graduation coincided with my mother’s 25th reunion and great grandmother’s 65th (class of ’18). They sat with their cohort groups, I with mine. I saw, across the school gym, the living stories of this town; my friends, my relatives, my people. And there was I, a first time visitor.

      • Charli Mills

        That’s a generational statement, sitting in that gym! But how awesome — you took off to see Ireland! Is that what made you feel like a first-time visitor? And what a time to get chicken pox.

    • Charli Mills

      Ha, ha! Commando and flashing! Interesting thought though, about the big bashes being more of a wake. Yes, I’m a proud mama.

  3. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Charli your children have grown with strong characters. They all made a statement with their high school graduations and have added to my mix of memories of that period in people’s lives. Thanks.

    • Charli Mills

      Each of them made their own way, and with education and adventure. Thanks for noticing their characters, Irene!

  4. Annecdotist

    What a great way of getting people to spend money they haven’t got! But where would the movie business be without the high school prom? The cancer has spread to the UK now, although fortunately too late for me. Well done you for resisting the pressure. Well done your daughter for doing her genuine graduation naked!

    • Charli Mills

      Aw, sorry to hear prom night spread to the UK. Exactly, it’s all meant to get people to spend more than they have. I’m glad my daughter teaches dance because she also imparts self-care and body acceptance to her students.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      I think it has possibly come here as well as we seem to follow suit. I don’t think we have gone for prom king and queen events though.

  5. floridaborne

    You must have a creative family!

    When a person graduated from high school in the 1920’s, that was considered a monumental achievement, and you actually received a decent education. One of my professors years ago said that a college education in the US at that time was the equivalent of a high school education. That was in the 1980’s.

    Today, you should see some of the written work I receive from high school graduates. My dad had a 5th grade education, and he could write better!

    These days, there are cap and gown graduations for kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools. It takes the importance out of the entire idea of a graduation ceremony, making it just another costume party instead of a meaningful event.

    • Charli Mills

      A costume party — that’s a great way to put it. I had heard about kindergarten graduation ceremonies but it seemed to be isolated to private schools. Perhaps not now. I think back in the 1920 and further, there was “normal” school and it was the equivalent of high school. But there were high standards for high school nonetheless. Somehow it’s all become skewed. We’ve lost focus on what should matter most. We tend to color outside the lines in our family!

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      I couldn’t agree with your comments more. I can see a deterioration in reading, writing and arithmetic from even the time I went to high school compared to work I have reviewed at university level.
      Another costume party says it all.

  6. susansleggs

    Charli, I think your children’s graduations were great. My great-niece just had a party for 200. I found the whole idea appalling. In the states high school is a necessity and in my opinion should be treated as such.

    • Charli Mills

      Exactly! We need emphasis on the schooling and not the partying. Like Irene mentioned, it’s good to celebrate milestones but we need a good education. One thing our country has always had is public education. We need to not take it for granted.

  7. julespaige

    Having a family meal lunch or dinner out or letting the children go to their friends to celebrate small scale was fine for us and our offspring. But I do know folks around these parts who go all out with graduation photos by professionals – we did not do that. Or send out High School graduation notices with said pro photos to family and friends with or without the expectation of getting funds to recognize the fact – and maybe put some of those (extorted funds) towards college.

    We only ever did get one of those cards. And didn’t send any funds. I don’t remember if I send a card of congratulations though.

    I remember once when one of my sons was in nursery school a pre-schooler had a birthday party… a three horse carousel and who knows what else. I can’t imagine what the her wedding was like. I guess if you’ve got ‘it’ you want to flaunt it?

    Simple is best in our house. I wasn’t a happy High School student and I didn’t get to go to any parties. I lived. Even my two year college graduation was just celebrated with a dinner out with my folks. I don’t even remember if anyone else was there from my family.

    • Charli Mills

      That’s right — the photos! I took the graduation photos for my kids. My son’s high school did these photo boards, collages of childhood photos. I remember the print shop where I did brochures and such for work make a killing setting up those boards. Like you, I was not a happy high school student. That’s why I wrote about my kids.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      I’m staggered that people are requesting funds for photos and then putting the money to something else (even though the something else is probably a better use for it.

      • Jules

        Did the photo boards when my one graduated from college… Didn’t get it then either. Did I really need a close up of him getting his diploma? I think getting a job was more important. 🙂

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        For my recent graduation we didn’t understand why they made an announcement that people were to remain seated during the ceremony. You have suddenly given me understanding – it was so you couldn’t get your personal photograph of the presentation point. Roger has never been one to do what he is told.

  8. denmaniacs4

    Graduation 1964-and 1965

    I belong to the mid-1960’s, small town Canadian, boomer generation of high school graduates, Charli and Rough Writers. It took me two years to exit high school. I was not all that efficient with my years growing up. Scattered. Self-indulgent. Aimless, really. The bonus I suppose was the opportunity to attend two successive fifty-year reunions. I only made the first.

    While I was not a joiner, I ended up as a class representative on the 1964 Grad Committee, the only one not to graduate. In any case, I was likely a token rep. I have no recollection of what the committee did.

    My callowness played a great part in my first grad. Months before the event, I asked one young woman to go with me. Later, I began dating someone else and managed the whole episode about as badly as one could.

    In the end, we basically had a big dance for Grad…I bought a Nehru jacket, an stylish item that had a relatively short cultural lifespan back then. It hung in my closet at home until my mother died decades later.

    Overall, I don’t recall any other celebration of the event. The cost was minimal.

    There were afterparties. In an essay in my second book…an essay on suicide (stimulated by a workshop on Talking about Suicide)…I describe a bit of my post grad dance evening.

    “As I sat there that Saturday, listening attentively, opining at the appropriate time, I divulged that my earliest smack-in-the-face recollection about the certainty of suicide was in my teens when the older brother of a relatively new friend killed himself in his old Chevy by running a hose from the exhaust into the sufficiently sealed inner shell of the car. I had seen him around; the friend was new; his suicidal brother was a couple of years older; they had a sister I was fleetingly setting my pubescent sights on. In short though, I never really knew him. After his death, my new friend inherited his late brother’s wheels. On the night of our Graduation gala, six of us, three adolescent couples, drove up and down Vancouver Island, taxing the night, testing ourselves and, I suppose, experiencing the ephemeral numbness of unearthing juvenile thrills in what was, by some standards, a death car.”

    Well, this little grad sojourn is mostly accurate, I suppose. For me, those long-ago days blend into a jumble of murky memories. Grad. Love. Family. Future.

    Thornton Wilder somewhat captures the feeling in this quote…

    “I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young. And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and you didn’t quite see the street you were in, and didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you. You’re just a little bit crazy. Will you remember that, please?”

    Thanks for the post, Charli.

    • Charli Mills

      We do a lot of growing up between teens and 20s. It seems to me your graduation experience with school grad committee and after graduation parties among angsty, callow teens is what I recall from my parents’ era through my own. Your excerpt of your essay makes a poignant story and clarifies that we are trying to “graduate” in the sense that we are struggling to grow up. Maybe that’s what feels so off about these modern big to-dos — it’s less about the teens going through those awful and awkward moments and more about forcing it to all be normal. Good thoughtful posting, Bill.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thanks for sharing your memories Bill. Your wonderful quote says it all. I can see the six of you driving around in that “death car.”

  9. robbiesinspiration

    I found your memories of your children’s graduations fascinating, Charli. I have not heard of a zoo school before. There are few variations or options outside of the traditional schooling plan here in South Africa. I had a graduation party which all the matric students did fund raising throughout the year to pay for. A magical event.

    • Charli Mills

      The Zoo School was called so because the high school was on the Minnesota Zoo campus. Minnesota has alternative schools which are public but focused on a disciplinary area of study — this one was environmental science. I better like the idea of the students having their own party together one they’ve planned and funded. You’ll need to say more about why it was magical! I’m curious!

  10. Sherri Matthews

    Now those are my kind of graduations Charli! Oh I loved every word of your memoir. I kept thinking that the grad party next door must have thought the real entertainment had arrived upon seeing the flames comng out of the back of the truck, thinking it might be some pre-cursor to fireworks or something. Yikes…thank goodness there weren’t real ‘fireworks’ when the mattress re-ignited. And high fives to your eldest for graduating naked and to your son for shunning all the glitz. Love the sound of Zoo school. Oh Charli, how incredibly proud of all three of your kids you were on their graduations and how proud they must have been of their mama at hers 🙂 I’ll share my grad post over at the Summerhouse later this week, hopefully. Mine was a non-event being a Brit and we didn’t do such things in the 70’s. Oh how the world has changed. Love learning more about you and your amazing, talented and compassionate family <3

    • Charli Mills

      I left out the part where Kyle was the only family member to come home to find firetrucks in the driveway. He was 17 and just got off work. The fire chief and attending police officer wanted to speak to an “adult” but his two older sisters were living on their own elsewhere, Todd was working in Chicago and I was at a convention in Kansas City. What an event. Like your kids, I am mighty proud of who they are. But they sure grow up fast, don’t they? I think we all could use a return to simplicity with grad parties.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Oh my, what a story and wha a shock for Kyle to return home to…crazy! Ahh…yes, they do indeed, the years go by scarily fast. And more so once they grow up it seems, meaning as we grow older too! Oh for those more simple times! Have a great weekend Charli 🙂 <3

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