As the humidity led to drops of sweat gathering up at my hairline, I began to worry about the tattered photograph I had shoved under the rim of my hat.
The sun was beginning to set over the football field at Natchez High School that evening, and my graduating class and I began to stick to the plastic chairs that lined the field.
It was unusually sticky and humid that late afternoon, but we didn’t care. We were excited to hear our names called to the delight of our family and friends in the bleachers. We were anxious to grab that piece of paper from our principal that said we were official graduates of the Class of 2000.
I was only the second person in my immediate family who would ever head to the halls of college. And as I looked out to my grandmother in the crowd, I was reminded that she never graduated from high school.
She exchanged her school books for a cotton bag, working the fields to help make ends meet for her poor country family. I couldn’t help but grin after I spotted my Momma next to her. She graduated high school when she was only 16 years old, having skipped two grades. She was already tearing up at the thought that her only child was about to embark onto college to pursue a journalism degree.
My grandfather died when I was 13 years old, and he would never see me walk on that stage to accept my diploma. I decided to have him there with me the best way I could.
I shoved a tiny tattered photograph of my Paw Paw in his early 20s under the rim of my graduation hat, away from plain sight. When I walked across that stage to symbolize my new chapter into adulthood, he would be there with me.
I was surrounded by my classmates, who were just as anxious and excited as I was to be there that evening. Some would go onto the workforce. Some would head off to college like me. Some would train under a vocation. A handful would end up in jail. And a few wouldn’t even live to see a few more years.
But for that one moment, our direction was the same. We were heading onto the stage together.
And as I sat on that field, waiting to hear my name, I remembered all the people it took to get me in that seat.
Maw Maw quit school in the eighth grade to work the family farm. She told me years later that she also quit because she didn’t have nice clothes to wear. She worked her fingers to the bone, picking cotton and growing crops.
She would eventually marry my grandfather and have six children, two stillborn. She would bury her five-year-old son and continue to raise her three children to have enough to eat and to all graduate from high school; something she never did. She was there when I was born and would babysit me when Momma worked the graveyard shift on two of her three jobs.
And Maw Maw was there that night.
My Momma was considered the brain of our family. She was extremely smart and would graduate high school two years earlier than expected. She headed off to college to become a teacher, married my father and had me, her only child.
After a divorce, she raised me as a single mother, returning to college to earn a nursing degree so we could have more money. She worked three nursing jobs and raised me to value my schoolwork above all.
Straight As were the only thing acceptable in her house. Thanks to her hard work to raise me, I went to bed every night with a full belly and a head full of knowledge that I intended to use one day.
And Momma was there that night.
My Paw Paw was a poor farm kid, plain and simple. Being one of nine children, hard work was just a way of life. Cotton was what got some money, and crops kept you fed. He was raised in a shotgun shack with a dirt floor. The only thing he ever bought himself in his early days was a used Stetson hat to impress my grandmother. He served in World War II, earned a good living at the paper mill and made sure all his kids did what he never got to do: leave the fields and head to school.
And Paw Paw was there that night…on a tattered photograph that was with me when I accepted my diploma.
Anxiously waiting for the cue to throw my graduation hat into the night sky, I looked up and saw my Momma and Maw Maw smiling uncontrollably and waving at me as I tapped my rolled-up diploma on my head, smiling back at them.
And when I threw my hat into the air, I grabbed Paw Paw’s photo in my hand. Unsure of where my hat would land, I kept my focus into the sky. And as the hat fell almost directly back into my hands, I couldn’t help but feel a little breeze brush past my face.
And I couldn’t quite tell if the breeze was pushed from the shouts in the crowd or from somewhere else above.