Any minute now, I think.
Any minute I will feel them pricking the corners of my eyes, that painful feeling of impending tears you are trying to snuffle back and failing. After all, there she is in her cap and gown, looking somehow very similar to the way she looked for her kindergarten graduation and yet in some way more than a decade has passed and she looks different, too.
Older. Wiser. Sort of like an adult, which makes sense as she is just months shy of her 18th birthday.
But as I sit in the uncomfortable seats for the hours in which it takes over 500 students to walk across a stage (and as her last name begins with W I have plenty of time to contemplate) I find myself not even close to tears. Instead, I feel overwhelmingly proud and excited, not for me but for her as she steps from one path onto another.
When my daughter chose to finish her final two years of high school education in Calgary, I was devastated as it meant she would leave my home to live with her father. It was both the most difficult and best thing I have ever done to let her go, as she has always been mature for her years and she knew she was ready for a new challenge and different opportunities. It was a hard transition for me as I was not prepared to see her go, but as someone said to me once, what good are wings if you are afraid to fly?
And for my daughter’s entire life, my goal has been to help her find her wings.
Until the age of thirty I did not want to have children; in fact the idea seemed foreign to me and my life was completely centred on myself. But when I turned thirty for some strange reason the idea of raising a child became more and more compelling, and at the age of 33, my daughter was born.
People told me it would change my life, and they were right, far more right than I ever could have anticipated. The arrival of my daughter changed everything.
When my daughter was two, we left the small town in Ontario where she was born and moved to Fort McMurray; it was a place I had never even seen, but there we were. And so it was she grew up in this northern community with dancing green lights in the sky above and lush green boreal forest all around.
As I sit there and wait patiently for her name to be called to accept her diploma, I think about what it takes to raise a child. And the truth is that it takes far more than a parent; it takes a community. It takes a village, as the cliché states.
In our case, it took Fort McMurray.
I am so deeply grateful for all of those who participated in raising my daughter, whether directly or indirectly.
There were the teachers and administrators at the Fort McMurray Public School District: Beacon Hill Public School where she was a Bear from kindergarten to Grade 5, one year spent at Timberlea School, three incredible years of growth at Ecole McTavish Junior High and one year of young adulthood at Westwood Community High School. There are so many unforgettable moments at each school, principals like George Decker who told me once that she would change the world one day and Scott Barr who shared with her and I the vision of every student becoming a global citizen; teachers who shared with her their passion and enthusiasm and taught her not only to read and write and multiply and divide but to think; and school environments filled with a desire to do what is best for kids, my kid being one of the many to pass through those doors and be forever better as a result.
There were all those who provided her with opportunities I could not, like the time it was “take your kid to work day” and she declined to accompany me to my job as she deemed it dull (!) and instead spent time at a local radio station and the food bank. I will never forget picking her up that day and being told how Jerry Neville taught her about radio advertising demographics, Ferne Wynnyk talked politics with her and Arianna Johnson took her to a bank appointment to discuss finances for the food bank. When I commented that I had assumed she would be sorting cans at the food bank, she looked at me with exasperation and said: “You know, there’s a lot more to running a food bank than food.” Indeed.
There were the extracurricular activities, like figure skating with the Noralta Skating Club which eventually gave way to piano lessons and then to things like helping to co-found Fort McMurray’s first GSA, her passions changing and evolving as she did.
There were the political campaigns she worked on, delivering flyers and knocking on doors, celebrating the successful election of her candidate; and there was the time she was given the opportunity by a local magazine to interview Justin Trudeau, then the Liberal Party leader who gave her thirty minutes of his time and a memory for her entire life.
There were the meetings with famous musicians and with Chris Hadfield, one of her most thrilling moments given her keen interest in space exploration.
And all those moments, every single one, happened here in Fort McMurray.
And perhaps some of the most powerful for her was when my life changed and she watched how I embraced this community through my written work and it welcomed me, giving me the kind of opportunities others could only dream about. She saw how I was able to grow and evolve, and how I was determined to give back to the community which has given me – and her – so much.
When she chose to relocate to Calgary, I considered moving there, too. But when I approached her with the idea she looked at me and said: “I think I will be happy in Calgary, but I think you will be happy where your heart is – and that’s Fort McMurray.”
And so part of my heart went with her as she moved on and part of it stayed here, still being her mom but parenting from a distance while she grew even more…
Finally leading to a stage in Calgary where her name is called, and she walks across, accepts her diploma, smiles for a photo, pauses to have her tassel moved to the other side and then exits the stage, beaming the kind of smile of accomplishment and wonder I have come to know so well over the last 17 years.
Not a tear was shed that moment, not by me or her as we celebrated the end and the beginning. In the fall she moves on to her chosen university with a generous scholarship, ready to pursue her degree in mechanical engineering and then perhaps on to aeronautical engineering and maybe one day, just maybe, working in a space exploration program.
That I am proud of her should come as no surprise to anyone; but I am also so proud of Fort McMurray and grateful, too. While she did not graduate here, she is undoubtedly a Fort McMurray success story, and when asked where she grew up the name of this northern community will be her response.
It takes a village.
It takes a community to help a child find their wings, and this incredible community helped my daughter to find hers. She took flight before even I was ready, launching herself from the safety of the nest in Grade 11 when she chose a bold new adventure, and she has been flying high ever since.
So to all of you I say thanks: to the community leaders and builders, to the educators and administrators, to everyone who touched her life directly and indirectly: thank you. I know there are moments when we wonder why we are still slogging away at what we do, occasionally feeling defeated and wondering what our purpose is; the purpose can be found in the success of every child who grows up here and finds their wings, even if it means they one day fly away from us.
And as my daughter flies away, she takes with her so many of the lessons she learned here: integrity, strength, perseverance, resiliency, enthusiasm, responsibility, tenacity, courage and determination. She is the very reflection of the place where she grew up, and now she shares a bit of who we are with the world; and I believe the world will be better for it, too.
She meets me after the ceremony, cap in hand. She looks at me and grins, saying: “Did you cry?”
I wrap her in my arms and whisper: “There is nothing to cry about today,” and at that very moment I suddenly feel the tiniest of tears in my eyes as I watch her soar ever higher once again.
This is the song that came out around the time of her birth;
I played it again and again as I held my infant daughter,
never realizing how high one day she would fly.
Sam Wells, Class of 2017