It’s graduation and senior photo time – and time to reflect on being young and beautiful, and scared.
It’s that time of year again. Everything is back to green, the grass is looking lush and the lawns are hissing in the evening as new life springs up everywhere. It’s also the season of prom nights and convocation ceremonies. And if there’s a a high school or university senior in your house, the odd blend of anticipation and anxiety is palpable. The anticipation is cooked up with the flurry of activities that precede the big day – shopping for dresses, shoes, picking a date, picking a university or grad school. The anxiety simmers underneath, brought about by the uncertainty of change, and heightened tenfold if the chapter beyond graduation has not yet revealed itself.
I love photographing proms and graduates. Every year, the ritual in my town is the same. The high school seniors gather late in the afternoon in our local park after spending hours in salons and bedrooms preening to the utmost, and the sheer joy and shared community pride is infectious. The young women and men remind me of peacocks, and watching them pose seriously and then not so seriously is always really fun. After they head off for dinner somewhere, nearly the entire population of our town later gathers outside the high school to welcome the students to Prom. They parade up to the doors in an array of wild and wacky modes of transportation, and they make entrances as grand as any strutted on a Hollywood red carpet. And the crowd goes wild.
Seniors are full of hope and apprehension – and photos capture these emotions in a timeless way
The beauty of youth in these moments is breathtaking. I love to photograph it. It also makes me reflect on how fleeting youth really is, and how priceless it is to be young, optimistic, and so full of fun. But amid all of the obvious happiness, there are glimpses of the uncertainty of “what’s next”. Underneath the taffeta and the black tuxedos I know there are young people who are more likely wishing that school would never end, because they have no idea what the “next” is or should be.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about what I’d like to tell those kids that dread being asked “what’s next?” I’ve also been thinking about how there is far too much focus on the importance of “getting a job” and getting an education to “get a job” these days. When the economy gets tight, the stories start cropping up questioning the value of a university education, especially a liberal arts education. My niece graduated recently with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and it is true that there are no obvious jobs waiting for her. But people forget that universities were never purposed with finding people jobs, and that debate is not the intended theme of this post. What I really intended is to speak to graduates who don’t know where they are going and don’t really have a sweet clue what they want to do in life. And I really have only two words to share: “It’s okay”.
The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” – Sidney J. Harris
It’s okay to not know what you want or where you want to go.
At the annual prom extravaganza, I’ve overhead a number of adults question a young person to the effect: “what are you doing next year, Duncan?” or worse, “what do you want to be, Tiffany?” and I can tell by the expression on the young person’s face that they don’t want to answer the question. And by the expression on the adult’s face, I can tell that the adult is silently thanking a higher power that the uncertain youngster is not theirs. I want to jump in and shout “it’s okay! I didn’t have a sweet clue what I wanted when I was your age and look at me now!” Except that I don’t because the “now me” isn’t a shining example of knowing what I wanted and successfully getting it. Oh, on the outside I look successful, and in many ways I have been. But there are still dreams to be chased and fulfillment to be had. And that leads to my second tip: it’s never too late to seek a new bliss. Passions change, and it’s okay to keep following them. It’s stupid to give up on a dream because you first had it twenty years ago but didn’t pursue it. And the measure of your success should not be based on somebody else’s yardstick. If you don’t already know, take time to figure out what makes you happy … before you start down the road of pleasing everybody else.
It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old; they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
It’s also not the last time you are going to not know what to do next
The first time that you feel that really dreadful sense of uncertainty, fear of the unknown, you may also feel that it is the worst possible time of your life. Watching your friends heading off to new adventures when you have no sense of direction or purpose is really challenging, but I have another tip for you: it won’t be the last time you feel this way; it really isn’t so bad. Look at it differently as an opportunity for some “down time”, for a breather during which you can just think and play and not be pressured by deadlines or expectations. Recently, Jill Abramson was fired from her high profile and high paying job as executive editor of the New York Times, and in her commencement address to graduates of Wake Forest University, she said it was the “honor of her life to lead the newsroom”. She acknowledged how painful it was to lose the job. She joked by suggesting that she might pay a visit to the university’s career counselor. “What’s next for me?” she asked. “I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. And like you, I’m a little scared but also excited.” Tap into the excitement part, and I assure you that opportunities will reveal themselves, in their own good time.
To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And to the C students, I say you too may one day be President of the United States.” – George W. Bush
Dream big, and not just while you’re sleeping
Now that I’m in the middle years of life, I can look around me and see all kinds of people who have stopped dreaming. They get caught up in expectations. Expectations that were ingrained by parents, co-workers, bosses, children. These expectations can wear you down, especially if you put them ahead of your own desires. Some people will say that responsibilities must trump dreams, but I believe that you can have and realize dreams without shirking responsibilities. You just need to figure it out. Being a dreamer isn’t a bad thing. Dreams that stay dreams might be pointless and may in fact haunt you. But dreams that become actions become real, and there is no better reward than a dream becoming reality.
Last but not least, I would say you should have big dreams, full dreams, not half dreams. You know, it’s very simple. You can’t put a large box in a small box. Well, you cannot put a full life in a small dream box. – Elias Zerhouni
I had a dream when I was a little girl. All I thought about was being able to ride horses, and I fantasized in a big way about having a life full of horses. It was out of the question in my house, completely beyond my parents’ means to provide. I never gave up the dream, however. When I could pay for them myself, I signed up for riding lessons. When I knew how to ride, I found myself a horse (the first one was free). When I had children, I introduced them to the horsey life, and one of my daughters inherited my dream. We’ve shared a rich and full life (so far) enjoying the reality of a big dream. And my daughter’s dream has rewarded her with the best and truest friends.
So this year, when I’m at the park photographing all of the beautiful seniors resplendent in their finery, I’ll be thinking: dream big, dream on, and be whoever you want to be, who you were meant to be, and if someone asks you “what’s next?” and you don’t really know, just smile and say loudly: “I can’t wait to make that discovery!”
Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else’s path unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that.” – Ellen DeGeneres
And of course, I’d love to take your photograph. I’ll take your graduation photos – and give you a little advice. The advice is free.