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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

Tomorrow is the day my baby graduates from college. The youngest of four daughters, she will join two of her sisters as holders of a bachelor of arts degree (we have one rebel in the family). She will leave in July for Missouri, where she will enroll in a two-year master's program in communications, her chosen field. We are enormously proud of her, my husband even more so because she is graduating from Cal State Bakersfield, where he is a faculty member. At tomorrow's ceremony, however, he is just a dad, albeit a beaming one.

I knew this day would come, back when our house was swarming like a beehive with the energy and activity of four kids and their many best friends. In the midst of laundry and house-cleaning and cooking and counseling and chauffeuring and disciplining and bandaging and commiserating, I knew deep down in my heart that these little girls would grow up and become adult women and embark on their own marvelous journeys. I knew the days when mothering occupied my every waking moment, when I could barely catch my breath at bedtime, would one day end. I just didn't know the end would come so quickly. It seems I was the mother of young children forever, and yet only for a fleeting minute. My memories are vivid and faded at the same time, and I wonder how this is possible.

Graduations for me are much like weddings and awards ceremonies and parades and dance recitals: I cry even when I don't really know the people involved. There is some sort of tearing trigger that happens to my eyes at these events, making me feel sappy and ridiculous. When it actually is my child graduating or getting married or winning an award or marching or dancing her heart out, I can barely see through the tears. I can be a very embarrassing companion at many diverse events. I always travel with a handkerchief.

And so I will weep tomorrow. How is it that my baby girl, who was known as "the baby" for much of her childhood, who struggled on little legs to keep up with her older sisters, who loved Barney the dinosaur even when those same sisters mocked her, who slept (sleeps?) with a stuffed dog named Scooter that was practically decomposing, is a confident, capable, talented, beautiful college graduate?

We think of the verb phrase "to graduate" as signifying the final act in a finite process of education. But a second meaning is "to change gradually."When I picture my daughter as a college freshman, a teenager just out of high school, and now as I perceive her four years later, I see that she has indeed changed gradually, yet profoundly. Her university education has formed her, as has her overall college experience, which has included membership in a sorority and several jobs to pay her way.

When she first decided to attend CSUB, it was her second choice of school, and she had every intention of transferring out of there, and out of central California, as soon as she could. But a funny thing happened along the way: She took some classes and made some friends; she put down roots, and blossomed, and decided to stay long enough to earn her degree and become a Roadrunner alumna. Her formation has been gradual but steady, and she has benefited from a gifted faculty and a dynamic campus. From her sorority she has learned the value of leadership and collaboration, and from her course of study she has learned the value of scholarship and self-discipline. She has learned to think critically, to balance creatively, and to behave compassionately. She is off now to discover who she is, and who she will be.

A graduation is remembered by a diploma, a degree, a tassel, a program, a photograph. But a graduation is also relied upon and lived out every day in the knowledge, judgment, imagination, and insight that the graduate gains from his or her education and uses to make life decisions. Every graduation is both an accomplishment and an opening door to a new world.

We have always felt blessed by our youngest daughter, who fills her parents' hearts with love and gratitude. And even if we don't say it, even if we wave goodbye cheerfully as she leaves to conquer the state of Missouri, we know in our hearts that some part of her will always be our little girl.