Karina Bland, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, writes a column about her son, Sawyer Bland, graduating.

It hadn’t seemed real, not until I was sitting, program in hand, in the front pew of the balcony at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Phoenix, where Arizona School for the Arts holds its commencement ceremonies. 

Up until that moment my son’s graduation had meant final exams and end-of-the-year recitals, senior portraits and embossed announcements, vegetable platters and sandwich trays, and, finally, me steaming the wrinkles out of his black gown.

Now the students were filing into the church below me, and there was Sawyer, one of the tallest, with the top of his cap decorated with the words, “Knowledge is IE.”

(IE is electromotive force times current, which equals power. Knowledge is power. Get it? I didn’t. I had to ask.)

The wind ensemble played “Procession of the Nobles.”

In that moment, I remembered how, on Sawyer’s very first day of school, my friend Amy had said to me: “Once they shut that kindergarten door, the time just flies.” Her girls were in second and sixth grade.

I hadn’t believed it.


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But soon there were 15 minutes of reading every night, a playground rodeo and stitches in his chin.

Then came chapter books, Little League, field trips, piano lessons, and middle school.

Suddenly high school brought math I would never understand, the works of Shakespeare and 15-page research papers.

And now it was over.

Now it felt real.

This is life: Is there an app for that?

One by one, the speakers came to the podium, two students and a teacher, the class’ favorite, Mr. Sustar, and then Cindy Dach, co-owner and general manager of Changing Hands Bookstore.

“You are an amazing generation,” Dach told the graduating class.

“With technology, apps and updates, things are delivered to you immediately — random things like dinner, ice cream, music, news, images of tragedies from around the world, commencement speeches.

“You are having live conversations with strangers all over the world.

“You have your individual lives to lead and at the same time you have this entire world coming at you. It’s a lot.”

It is a lot.

You have to work at it

Breathe, Dach told them. Take a deep breath. As many as you need.

“You won’t always be able to control the world around you, but you can control your response to it,” she said.

I smile, because that’s what parents do. For 18 years, I have been taking deep breaths — when I held Sawyer in my arms for the first time, while demanding he let the cat out of the pool, and before asking how he put the dent in the side of the car.

Be kind, Dach said. “It is easier to be a jerk than it is to be kind,” she said. “You have to work at it.

“Especially now when our country is so deeply divided.

“Be humble,” Dach told them. “Be proud of your accomplishments, but acknowledge the people who helped you, and then help someone else.”

All the villagers in a row — or two

“Look for solutions,” Dach told the graduates next. “Let go of fault. Ask, ‘what if?’

“Moving from problem to solution is a gift to ourselves and our communities,” she said.

“Hold onto your friends,” she said. “Your old friends will be your guides as you need them.”

I feel Nedda’s hand on my shoulder. I put my hand on top of hers.

Hold onto your friends, Sawyer, I think, echoing Dach.

I looked to my right and my left and then behind me, at the people, family and friends — 27 in all — who came to watch Sawyer graduate.

I think about the people who will fill our house the next day for an open house.

This was our village, and one of the things I’m absolutely sure I did right. I packed my son’s life with good people, family, friends and neighbors.

Because I recognized that Sawyer would need more than me.

He will go out on his own after graduation, but he won’t be alone. Not ever.

Be brave, and take out the trash

I think about the things I’ve told Sawyer over the years, what I’ve said again and again, what maxim had I offered my son.

The thing I say the most is, “I love you.” In the morning and at night. At the end of every phone call. When things are hard. When he makes me laugh.

But what else can I tell him that I haven’t already? What will he remember? 

Floss your teeth.

Next to “I love you,” it’s probably what I say the most. “Floss your teeth,” I call as he heads to the bathroom.

It is probably because I’ve spent so much money on his teeth. He had braces, top and bottom — twice.

And flossing is one of my favorite things.

There are probably more important things I should have said that often, I think, sitting in the pew. What else did I tell him?

Be brave.

On that first day of kindergarten, just before the classroom door shut, I told Sawyer, “Use the Force,” because he was obsessed with Star Wars and wanted to be a Jedi.

He declared himself an adult when he turned 18 in the spring and in the months between then and now, we debated what it meant to be an adult. 

Sawyer registered to vote, with the Selective Service, and for college classes. 

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His whole life he has been brave, through an ear surgery and a broken leg, piano recitals and opening nights, disappointments and challenges. The Force was strong in this one.

But being an adult it more than the big things. It is little things, like taking out the trash without being asked, not cracking open a can of Coke at 11 p.m. on a school night, and owning up to your mistakes.

It doesn’t happen in an instant. You grow into it.

What Sawyer doesn’t realize is that at this time, as a newly minted adult, he is cushioned still, backed up by his village and still unencumbered by the kind of responsibilities that could keep him from traveling, from studying, from exploring.

Enjoy it, I think.

Look at the world around you

Pay attention.

Sawyer has grown up with those words. Teachers who said over and over, “Pay attention,” from his mom. “Focus, son. Focus.”

But now it’s about more than missing the homework assignment, or skipping a step in a chemistry experiment. It’s about missing life.

“Look up from your screen,” I tell him. “Notice the world around you, and the people in it.”

I know Sawyer thinks moments like this, formal ceremonies, filled with pomp and circumstance, are boring.

Look around you, son, at your friends, teachers, your village.

Look for love.

The moment arrives … 

The principal is calling graduates’ names now, and I watch Sawyer move forward in line, clapping for his classmates.

And then his name is called.

Handshake, eye contact.

From the time he was little, I would whisper that reminder to him as he met new people.

Now I watch as he shakes hands, first with board president Ed Novak and then with Leah Fregulia, the head of school. He takes his diploma, smiling.

… and is over

People congratulated me on Sawyer’s graduation, and I said thank you, because I’m sure I had something to do with it. But mostly I realize I am in awe of this young man.

There were times I tried to push him in one direction and he went confidentially in another, picking capoeira instead of Little League, music over golf.

It turns out, he was almost always right.

And so many of the things I worried about, whether he would ever sleep through the night, or read chapter books, or remember the combination of his locker, were for naught.

Because even though he asked the location of the place where he gets his hair cut every time he had an appointment, and even though he’d been there a dozen times, I learned that he always finds his way.

18 years in the making

I leaned forward and looked down the pew at Amy sitting with her husband Tom and her girls, one now a junior in college, the other a high school English teacher.

Amy smiled at me, knowing.

What she had said that first day of kindergarten was true. The years did fly by.

And Sawyer had soared.

Keep flying, son. Pay attention. Look for love.

And whatever else you do: Floss.

Reach Bland at [email protected] or 602-444-8614.


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