Midway through my senior year in high school, our principal dropped dead of a heart attack. I was the co-editor of the yearbook, and it was decided we would dedicate our edition to him, even though Mr. McCarthy, our principal, had been a strangely out of place man, a mild-mannered, tweed-jacket wearing WASP overseeing a largely black and Hispanic student body, who drifted quietly through the halls not bothering us as long as we didn’t bother him. Still, our previous principal had been imprisoned for insurance fraud, so a step in the right direction. Until he died. It was also decided that I should present his widow with a special copy of the yearbook at our graduation, and that I should say something in honor of this somber occasion. I wrote words to the effect of, “So many of the names of the faces in the yearbook would be forgotten over time, but no one would ever forget Mr. McCarthy.” I don’t know if this would have been true if he hadn’t died, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
And so it was that I found myself standing on stage behind a podium before the entire graduating class and all their available relatives, when not three words into my little speech my graduation cap slipped from my head and fell to the stage. Apparently I said, “Oops,” quite loudly into the microphone, which inspired a big, relieved laugh from the auditorium. From the darkened seats beneath me I heard one of my track teammates call out, “That’s all right, Bill!”
And it was. The whole thing went quite smoothly after that, and when I was done I ceremoniously handed the engraved copy to Mrs. McCarthy, a small shy woman who seemed sort of dazed, as if she were still learning what life was like without Mr. McCarthy to go home to. She appeared quite touched by our gesture, which depressed me a little—but what could be done? None of us had wished him dead, and we were all trying to make the best of it, and now it was time to graduate and begin the rest of our young lives.
I think everyone was grateful that cap fell off my head when it did, even Mrs. McCarthy. Before that moment, the ceremony was in danger of becoming a dry reflection of our own stiff and uncertain relationship with death. But then life popped through, and everyone breathed, and we were allowed to enjoy ourselves again, because life still belonged to the living.
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