the only way out is through

It was early May, and I was in the car on the way home from work.  When you work in a school, May is perhaps one of the busiest times of year, and it is also a time of celebration.  May means final exams, yes. But it also means prom, awards ceremonies, and graduation. As the high school principal, I was responsible for all of those things, and it was no wonder that I was feeling a little stressed as I set out toward home, trying to make the switch from workbrain to homebrain on the short drive.  I was unprepared for the sudden quickening of my pulse, the pounding in my chest and the wave of tears that flooded my eyes, and I pulled over to a side street to give myself a minute. I focused on my breathing, wiping my tears, and then it hit me. This wasn’t about work at all. This was the realization that in exactly one year, Nacho, my firstborn, then in eleventh grade, would be graduating.  As though that reality weren’t enough, it dawned on me that as the high school principal, I would be on stage with him. Having only ever experienced anxiety as an outsider with an intellectual understanding of it, I found myself tumbling into what would become a yearlong battle to keep myself together.

The school year is marked by milestones, reminders of its cyclical nature.  The desperately needed summer vacation is followed by the anxiously awaited first day of school.  The rotation of classes picks up speed like a runaway snowball, tripping over Halloween and Thanksgiving before crashing into winter break.  Next thing I knew, it was January and my staff and I were sitting in the office talking about graduation. Still five months away, there was a lot to be done, and being the first graduation I would ever take quite so personally, this one needed to be planned perfectly.  As I do every year, I met with the senior class in February to begin talking about their final weeks of school. I’ll admit it was a difficult meeting to get through, my voice quivering now and then as I spoke to the students about just how important this particular milestone is, and I found some relief in the fact that Nacho was away that day on a college visit.  Spring break was a welcome parenthesis in the slow spiral toward the end of May and my husband and I took our younger two skiing for a few days in early April. Given my heightened anticipation of the events to come, it had been easy to find myself more focused on Nacho than anyone else. Getting away for a few days with Marco and Emma (then in 8th and 10th grades respectively), was good for all of us.  

Back at school, as one group was preparing their imminent departure, the rest of the students began planning for the next school year.  The day of our assembly on registering for classes, the 8th graders were also there, and I was acutely aware that Marco was in the audience.  I had imagined him sitting there with his class looking small and out of place, and yet, as I stood on stage, microphone in hand, speaking to the students about the purpose of the day’s meeting, I scanned the 320 faces in the audience and realized that I could hardly distinguish Marco’s from the others.  He sat there with his friends, half-listening, just like the rest of them.

Shortly after the assembly, I was walking back to my office when I spotted a young man headed in the opposite direction.  I was struck by his walk. His steps were purposeful, with the slightest hint of a bounce, as he carried each foot forward.  I recognized his t-shirt and looked up at his face wondering who he was. He waved at me. “Hey mom.” A second or two passed as I took in his smile.  So handsome. So confident. My thoughts flashed back to just a few minutes earlier as I stood on the stage in the auditorium, watching Marco in the audience joke with his classmates.  And I finally understood. I had spent the whole year fighting to keep it together and yet all of this was inevitable. I understood that yes, my oldest child was graduating, and that yes, it was huge, and hard, and emotional.  But in it there was beauty because this was what was supposed to happen. Marco was coming up. Nacho was moving on. And for the first time in eleven months, I felt some peace. “Hi son.” I smiled at Nacho and waved back.

We long to control so much of our lives, and as a result, we sometimes feel compelled to resist what really is the natural order of things.  So what that my oldest son was graduating?  So what that I was a mess about it? Didn’t I expect every other parent in the audience to reach for their handkerchiefs now and then throughout the ceremony?  Perhaps it was the fact that the other parents would sit together facing the same direction without any real awareness of how the person to their right or left was experiencing that moment, whereas my reactions would be so much more public.  I so badly didn’t want to embarrass my son or myself, and invested great time and energy into building a wall around me that would be hard to break, even at that moment when, during my address to the graduates, my voice cracked ever so slightly, letting Nacho know that underneath the formality was a proud mess of a mom.  

My kids have grown up watching me take on that delicate balancing act of parent and school administrator.  During the school day, they see me focused, serious, and committed to my job, the teachers I work with, and the students we serve.  They’ve watched their friends get in trouble and know that we won’t talk about it at home. They know that at home I dance, I swear, and we laugh at dinner.  They accept that their friends can call me Kim at home despite calling me Ms. Cullen at school, but they also know that we will never host a party and I will never condone underage drinking in my home.  They love summers – when mom wears flip flops and puts her hair in a ponytail and eventually stops checking email for a few days. I do too.

Friday was the last day of school before summer vacation.  It’s been a year since Nacho graduated, and although both Emma and my stepdaughter, Eefje, will be seniors together in the fall, I’ve decided to walk into this one open to whatever emotions come.  I recently heard the saying “the only way out is through”, and it stayed with me. Rather than bracing myself for the storm, I’m going to open my arms and look up at clouds, enjoying every raindrop as it falls on my skin.  I will listen for the music in every thunderbolt, and watch every lightning strike with the wonder that comes from knowing that a glorious rainbow awaits. The only way out is through.

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Even as a child, I would study the unexpected turns in my life and try to find the lessons in them. I am nothing if not reflective. As an American citizen raised in Sao Paulo, Dallas and Madrid, I am a classic adult TCK*. Perspective is key, and I look at everything through multiple lenses. It used to make my son crazy when as a boy he would press me for a firm stance on something and I would often answer “well, that depends…” I am a thinker and learner, writer and story teller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, I am now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When I was around 8 years old, I starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. I have been blogging since 2010, have published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn, and I am currently working on a couple of manuscripts. One is a collection of motivational essays for women leaders in international education which I am co-authoring with my friend and colleague, Debbie Lane. The other is more of a memoir, a personal story about love, sacrifice, and hope. Hope and gratitude are common themes in my writing, my work, and in my life in general. Everyone has a story to tell. Thank you for taking some time to explore mine. I hope you’ll come back. *A TCK is a third-culture kid, someone who has spent a significant number of their formative years outside of their passport country. It is an experience that typically has a profound impact on the development of self and identity.

3 thoughts on “the only way out is through

  1. Thank you for sharing! It helps to hear from others in the same situation. Wise words that I will try to keep in mind when it get difficult dealing with my emotions during this last year of my daughters high school.


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