NICEVILLE — The Northwest Florida State College parking lot is swarmed with cars. Families are hurrying toward the gymnasium, dressed in their Sunday best.
I pass a man wearing denim. There are grease smudges on his jeans. Holes in his work shirt.
“I’m gonna see my son graduate,” he tells me, lighting a cigarette. “I can hardly believe it.”
That man’s name is Danny, he drove here from DeFuniak Springs to see his boy walk across a stage to receive a degree.
“My son’s the pride of our family,” he says. “I love that boy so much.”
Inside the arena is a huge crowd. In the center of the basketball court are hundreds of students in black gowns and square caps. Their faces, happy. Their smiles, blinding.
I stand in the nosebleeds beside Danny. He uses his phone to capture this moment.
Danny tells me his bossman didn’t want him leaving work today. But Danny said, “Damn that, I’m gonna see my boy walk, sir, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad. I’ll be back after lunch.”
When we sing the national anthem, Danny removes his cap and holds it over his heart. He sings louder than anyone.
Then he waves at his son. But his son doesn’t see him.
“There he is,” Danny says, pointing. “See him?”
“I see him,” I say.
When I first attended this school, it was called Okaloosa Walton College. It was about the size of an area rug back then.
This was the only place that would take an adult dropout like me. And it is the only alma mater I have ever known.
It’s funny. I was afraid to enroll here as an adult. I was worried everyone would think I was stupid. I was embarrassed on my first day of class. But I got over it. It took me less than a week to fall into the gentle rhythm of academia.
I took math with Miss Bronginez — the woman was as downhome as a crop of peanuts. She knew how to explain the pythagorean theorem to a man who still counted on his fingers.
And Doctor Schott, who sometimes delivered world class lectures in the back of a double-wide trailer for night class.
And Miss Lopez. I loved her Spanish classes. I took every course she offered until there were none left to take.
I took music with Mister Domulot, who remains one of my closest friends. And Mister Latenser, who still helps me when I have car problems. And Mister Nida, who lets me play in his band sometimes.
That’s the kind of small-town institution I attended. It was home to me, the kid who had no home. A place where I learned what it meant to study something in earnest.
It was here a faceless blue collar man once sat in an English class with a teacher who said, “You really oughta consider a career in writing.”
Last week, I was in my office. I was writing. When it was lunchtime, my wife knocked on the door. She presented me with a turkey sandwich and a small gift bag.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Turkey on rye,” she said.
“I meant what’s in the bag?”
“Oh, I don’t know, it came for you.”
There was a card attached. It read: “Northwest Florida State College.”
Inside the bag was an award. A heavy one. When I saw it, I had to sit down.
The statue was made of crystal. There was writing on it. The trophy read:
“Sean Dietrich, Distinguished Alumni, Against the Odds.”
It’s the only award I’ve ever received — unless you count the prize I won for safe forklift driving.
But the inscription on the trophy is only half correct. Maybe the odds were against me, but they’re against everyone. All you have to do is ask the kids in black gowns.
Or better yet, ask Danny. He’ll tell you. Life is bone hard. And just when you think it can’t get any harder, it raises your insurance premiums.
Still, somehow education found me. And it wasn’t because I was determined, or smart, or because I pushed myself. It was because I was pulled. By good people who stand quietly in this arena.
The ceremony begins. My new friend Danny is all ears. We watch the candidates take the platform.
When they announce his boy’s name, Danny starts cheering so hard I can hear his voice break. Soon, the two of us are clapping and hollering for a kid I’ve never even met.
The boy walks across the stage.
“That’s my son,” Danny says to me. “That’s him, do you see him? That’s my little boy.”
I certainly do see him.
Every time I look in a mirror.