Hedge of Roses

by Robert P. Barsanti

We got lucky.

My son graduated high school on an electric blue sky day that some father of the bride bought with his soul and a platinum American Express card. The lilacs had popped, as had the irises. The ducks have grown and are waddling across Madaket Road. Every other pickup truck is pulling a trailer filled with ten thousand dollars of mowing equipment, and summer has settled into the cooler air. The graduates stepped to the tick-tock of Pomp and Circumstance into Mary P. Walker Auditorium. Soon enough, the wheel will spin again, the ball will fall on white, and the tops of the elm trees will disappear into the fog. Not today.

Nantucket Graduating | Nantucket, MA
Members of Nantucket High School’s 2019 graduating class

Today, despite the finger-wagging of a principal who dearly wanted to be swinging a ruler, the auditorium broke into hoots and roars. A graduate’s name was called; she stepped forward and got her diploma and then a handshake from the superintendent and another from the principal. While her family cried and screamed and hollered. She may not know how lucky she is. But someone in the audience from Lithuania, from Jamaica, from Salvador, knew how fortunate he was to be sitting on Nantucket watching her get a diploma. She had taken a step to being a nurse, or a teacher, or a cop; the door had opened and she could walk through to a life of paychecks, health insurance, and eight hours of sleep. We got lucky, they screamed at the impacted principal. We got lucky.

Today, 136 young people, still in two colors, were lined up in six rows and accepted their diplomas in 45 minutes. A lucky three of their family got seats up close, but the rest sat in the back, or lined up against the walls, or climbed the stairs to the control room, or played with their kids up near the windows. Today, the Mary P. Walker Auditorium was filled beyond capacity and we were lucky to be there.

These graduates have been on stage for most of their lives. Even in a class of 136, they have been inside the hedge of the community for years. We have seen the games and the plays and the concerts for years. We watched them scoop ice cream, mow lawns, and rent bicycles. We have been to the birthday parties and fishing derbies and victory parades. We have been lucky in that. We are also lucky to be in a community that will put its money behind its kids. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are handed to the graduates over the course of this last week. We give money for tools, we give money for trade schools and for pilots and veterinarians and for gardeners.

Today, we are on Nantucket and there is work. Those twenty young people who chose employment could be sure that, as long as there was a bed for them, there would be three jobs and another calling every night. Lawns need cutting, brunch needs serving, and rooms need vacuuming. If you could work, and if you could stay, and if you stayed lucky, there would be money, work, and a life out here on the sandbar. The average salary of a bartender on Nantucket exceeds the median salary of a 34-year-old Middlebury College graduate. Today.

Next year, Nantucket will graduate more than 150 students for the first time ever. Nothing on the island was built for this many graduates and family members, save for the football field. Next year, everyone will be staring at the sky, hoping for more luck. But not today.

Today, under a timeless, still blue sky, parties will blossom in back yards and front rooms. The privileged will light cigars, the rest of us will drink beers and lean back in the chair. The debris dribbles off of the table: cold cuts, celery stalks, and chocolate cake with cream cheese. The empty wine bottles stand idle in a box, while the others float in melting ice with the seltzer and the Bud Lite. Against the wall, an eight-foot banner proclaims “Congratulations.” The young men and women sit in a circle, planning and plotting, under the blessing. But the old people know who the sign is really for.

Those lucky ones stand together behind the buffet, wine glass in one hand, rabbit’s foot in the other. Some nights the baby never stopped crying. Some days the dark and angry angels harried him. Some days were punctuated with slammed doors and thrown bags. But, every time he fell on the ice, he got up. Every time he went out to a party, he came back. Every time he fell asleep, he woke up. The grades dipped and soared, the attendance stayed steady, and the finish line passed under his feet. They look at him, alive, whole, well, and bless themselves: “We got lucky.”

Someday, not today, we won’t be lucky. The sharks and orcas will fin the beaches and hunt the seals. The phone calls will stop and the hammers will stop and the mowers will stop. Then the yard sales will sell those expensive mowers, and the surfboards, and the t-shirts before everything goes to the dump and everyone goes on the boat. The wind will increase, the water will rise, and the sky will descend. Not today.

And on that day, Nantucketers will look to each other. They will reach to each other, as they always have, and pull. When the water drains and the sky clears, they will return to the work of the island: each other. None of those graduates will ever be alone.

Today, the graduates dispersed from the stage with five roses. They gave them to the people who have helped them the most. They knit themselves to us with red buds, green stems, and appreciation. Grandparents, parents, friends, and the woodshop instructor all were bound together in a hedge of roses. Today, we got lucky.