There was a lot happening in my life just prior to my seventeenth birthday. First and foremost was my upcoming baptism at the circuit assembly. I had originally planned to get baptized in February of that year but my stepmother thought it best that I delve deeper into my bible studies, to make sure this was what I really wanted to commit to. Looking back now with years of hindsight, I believe she saw what I could not at the time.
The other big event, which of course was secondary to my baptism, was the occasion of my high school graduation. I had moved in with my father just prior to the start of 11th grade, and by late fall, was already jamming as many classes together as possible so that I could graduate the following spring, a full year earlier than expected. My intention was to begin the regular pioneer work immediately after graduation, which at the time meant 90 hours per month of field service. My guidance counselor was confused and concerned by not just my decision to graduate early, but also by my plan to forego a college education right after high school. When I told him about my aspiration to be a full-time preacher and ultimately make my way toward the goal of service at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witness, at Bethel, he did everything he could to convince me otherwise. My first quarter grades were among the highest in my class. From his perspective, I was “throwing away” a tremendous opportunity and a brilliant mind.
Despite the objections of my guidance counselor, I worked extra hard and earned the right to graduate early. I didn’t think anything of it when I came home and presented the graduation package to my father and stepmother, so as to gain the payment necessary for the rental of the cap and gown. I was completely taken back by my stepmother’s strong position on the matter.
“Oh no, you’re not going to graduation!” she bellowed. She took the forms out of my hand and tossed them onto the table. I felt hot, I felt boiling water welling up inside me, the whistle blowing. Who was she to say I couldn’t graduate! Didn’t she? I didn’t ask, didn’t know, and didn’t think of any this in the moment. All I could bear was the heaviness of realizing I would not walk across that stage, would not be handed a diploma, and out of more than a hundred teenagers, would be the only one not receiving my diploma in front of peers, parents, friends and families.
She informed me that attending a graduation ceremony is a worldly celebration. She said we don’t celebrate our own personal achievements, that we don’t celebrate anything except our service to Jehovah. I had become a straight-A student for the first time in years. I was more dedicated to my studies than most in my class. Let me call upon Jehovah, I thought to myself. Surely he would agree there was nothing wrong with me walking across that stage. But no, it wasn’t to be. I did not cross that stage. I picked up my diploma from the high school about a week after graduation.
In the end, I was able to cross a total of three stages. I earned my associate’s degree at 26, my bachelor’s degree at 32 (with special distinction), and finally my master’s in business degree at 40. Free from the burden of the past, I was able to erase the negative memory I held for so long. If you’ve delayed your education for any reason, it is not too late. You can cross that stage too.