It was the day I impatiently awaited after four years of tests, homework, detention, SAT’s, college preparation, community service, dress codes, uniform sweaters, and all-black shoes: Graduation. It was finally here in all its glorious ruin. After slickly slipping schoolwork’s clutches and excelling at crafting cheat sheets to pass exams without studying, one last hurdle was ironically lodged in-between me and my freedom from the tortuous prison that was High-School. My journalism teacher pulled me aside after class and informed me she offered my services as a lector during Graduation Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a ceremony that would host four hundred plus people – students, parents, teachers, and clergy included, even the Cardinal. My scholastic penance for avoiding all productive responsibility like Neo did the bullets in the Matrix. It was inevitable.
My stomach was practicing gymnastics the morning beforehand. I felt like I swallowed a grenade. My mind went into the blackest tunnel vision. All I could think about was how I hated having to go through with the reading. I had been a lector in middle school and experienced similar nervous reactions prior to stepping upon the pulpit, but in those cases, mostly, mass would fall on a day when only the dedicated churchgoers and homeless people showed up. It was really just time outside the classroom to flirt with the pretty girl who read the Responsorial Psalm and sat next to me. But, Graduation Mass was in front of a hefty crowd and to make matters worse, I would be the opening act. I thought I was going to step on the stage and melt like a sloppy magic trick. A family squabble in the car ride to the church only intensified my headache which was eating its way into a full-blown migraine.
As everyone settled into the pews and readied their cameras, a giant hush blanketed the cathedral. The school’s vice principal motioned for me to approach the rectory. As we bowed in respect to the massive, haunting crucifix centered at the nose of the architecture, he whispered to me to take my time and that he would place his hand on my shoulder if I needed reassurance that I wasn’t alone. I nodded but thought to myself, “how calming an experience does this guy think his palms are? Maybe he’s been to one too many church services”.
I took my place at the podium and gazed at the crowd ahead. Everyone’s eyes fixed on me. This was it. The moment I dreaded was here. I swallowed what felt like a brick of saliva in my throat as it cleared. I refreshed a few key points in my mind before I opened my mouth: “Enunciate, flow at a steady pace, and look up from time to time to diffuse any notions that you’re an android”. I found the assigned psalm and just as I said the first word, I felt his hand on my left shoulder. It was surprisingly comforting. The fact it didn’t move made me feel secure, that I was there for a purpose, and everyone now knew it. This wasn’t an exercise in degradation as my self-conscious nature had insisted. It was a celebration’s beginning, one that brought so many families together. It was about much more than me that morning. It was about us, the graduating class of 2010, and the proud people who came to see us and place their supportive hands on our shoulders to help ease the pressure. Retrospectively, as I regret my inactivity and corner cutting as a scholar, I realize there was one valuable opportunity I did not squander, a memory that burns brightly till this day, gracing that stage.
I read flawlessly. As I walked back through the pew to my assigned seat, my classmate looked over his shoulder from a row forward. “Good shit, Johnson.” I smiled and responded, “Good looks”. It was over. I had survived. I had actually performed well. The stomach throbbing was gone and my thoughts had slowed down to their normal pace. What my mind made into a horror, a peaceful touch restored to its dignified form.