It was a small town. How small was it? The year the Best Class in History graduated from high school, the town’s census hovered in the mid-600 townspeople range. There were 30 graduating seniors in that high school class. Yes, it was a small town, a place where everyone knew everyone else and people stuck together for better or worse.
Among the classmates was a kid they called Grendel. He was a slow fellow – ‘developmentally challenged’ it’s called today – who earned his nickname during Freshman Literature class when the class studied Beowolf. Some of the wise guys in class thought it was the perfect moniker for a boy who took five minutes to find a page number and who towered over all by six inches. Grendel was a quiet boy who managed to squeak through classes with dismal grades. He did not do well in sports either, much to the disappointment of the basketball coach. He took remedial classes and dutifully took his books home and turned in his homework, which was usually covered in red marks after grading.
He had two sisters in the same class, but their grades were considerably better than his. Grendel tried; God love him, he tried, but scholastics were simply not in his wheelhouse. He was the constant butt of jokes which he took with remarkable good grace. All it took was one unusual show of temper in Junior Year for the other kids in school to step back and decide not to tease the big slow but astonishingly strong underachiever. He was pretty good at playing paper football and made friends with most every kid in school, and his high school career was largely unremarkable.
So it was on the last week of school in senior year, Principal Wright gathered all the seniors into the auditorium to rehearse the graduation program. The senior year had been a full one with Football Homecoming, Basketball Homecoming, the Senior Play, the Senior Prom, the restoration of a school music program, SATs and ACTs and college acceptance/ rejection letters or job hunting, and looking ahead to their Senior Trip.
Jay looked around at the class, recalling some of the kids who had dropped out so they of course were not there. But then came the realization Grendel was not present either. Senior class president Bode noticed it too and asked Mr. Wright if someone ought to go find Grendel and get him in there.
“No,” Mr. Wright said, “I’m afraid John’s grades weren’t good enough to graduate. He’ll have to be held back.”
The class sat stunned. Despite the past four years of teasing and pranks and cruel jokes by some of the less-than-kind members of the class, they never thought Grendel would not walk. His sisters sat quietly in the auditorium seats, helpless to do anything further for their brother. Mr. Wright sighed and continued to read instructions until Bode spoke again.
“Wait, wait. How bad is he off, I mean can he do some extra catch-up work?
‘Cause –” he gave his classmates an encouraging nod – “We could help him.”
“Bode, no amount of extra work is going to get Gren – John – anywhere close to graduating.”
“That ain’t fair,” perpetual cool guy Rafe drawled from a far seat, his feet crossed at the ankles on the seat in front of him. “He put in the time; even prisoners get out of jail for good behavior.”
“Fair has nothing to do with it,” Mr. Wright replied.
“But it does. It has everything to do with it.” Bode rose from his seat and gave it everything he had. “Mr. Wright, Grendel’s worked hard. He might not have made the grades but he always worked as hard as he could with what he had. He’s already eighteen years old, and he’s not going to want to be the only nineteen-year-old senior in school. All he wants to do is get his diploma. We all know he’s planning to work with his dad at the junk yard. It’s not like he’s looking to cheat to get into college somewhere. He told me he’s planning to stay home and work junk. He just wants to bring home his diploma to his folks.”
Grendel’s sisters nodded in agreement, Bode’s words giving them hope for the first time.
“But it isn’t fair to any of you who made the grades,” Mr. Wright argued.
“So? It ain’t no skin off your teeth neither,” Rafe drawled to Mr. Wright.
Bode’s best friend and perpetual co-conspirator Denys caught on and ran with it. Denys usually jumped into the mix whether it was tossing around ideas or literally jumping out a classroom window to the ground below, while class was in session, just to see if he could do so undetected. “Who in here cares? Hey everyone! Do you mind if Grendel gets to graduate with us?” He turned to address the class. “Is it going to like, ruin your whole day?”
“No,” one girl piped up.
“Is it really going to matter in ten years?” Bode added. “Don’t you think Grendel’s done as much as he’s able and has given all he’s got? Do you mind if he graduates with us?”
“No, we don’t mind,” they unanimously responded.
Bode turned to Mr. Wright. “You could fix it. The school board isn’t going to mind one way or ‘nother. Like Rafe said, it’s no skin off anyone’s teeth. Other kids from our class aren’t graduating because they chose to leave, get married and stuff like that. But John’s been here. He needs to be in the ceremony. He’s been working for this moment.” He took a deep breath. “If he doesn’t walk, then I won’t walk either.”
A mild murmur rippled through the group, and Mr. Acre the class sponsor sat up and tilted his head slightly to one side. Bode was serious, and Mr. Acre saw he meant every word of it.
“Yeah, me either,” Rafe intoned from his seat in the shadows. “If Grendel don’t walk, I don’t walk.”
“Me either,” Denys declared as he sat up straight in his seat.
“Me either!” others chimed in.
“Me either.” That hometown centered around the school. Everything going on in town was directly or indirectly related to the student body and its activities. This had the scent of a typical Bode-and-Denys all-or-nothing deal, and John was a nice guy worth going to bat for.
“You have the whole graduating class of thirty sitting it out. All our relatives are going to show up to stare at an empty stage,” Bruce added.
“Just like we did during the Prom when the DJ didn’t show up,” Rafe snickered.
“Shh,” Denys hissed at him, sensing the moment.
“John Grendel deserves to walk across the stage and get a diploma,” Bode reiterated, “Or none of us do.”
“You kids really mean it,” Mr. Wright said in dumbfounded wonder, studying each of us in turn.
Mr. Wright looked at Mr. Acre, who gave a shrug and reminded the principal, “No one cares more about their grades than these kids. If they are willing to sacrifice their own graduations for the sake of one classmate… well…”
“I’ll… I’ll talk to the superintendent about it and see what I can do,” Mr. Wright said, and left the auditorium.
One week later, a tornado blew into town on the afternoon of graduation, doing some damage in the town including tearing a neighbor’s roof off and dropping it in the front yard across the street. That did not deter the townspeople, who had a graduation scheduled and by golly they weren’t going to miss it just on account of some little ol’ windstorm. They dried off, dressed up and were at the auditorium at seven p.m. sharp.
Grendel was there.
He marched down the auditorium aisle along with his sisters to the time-honored tune of Pomp and Circumstance, the proud smile on his face reflected on those of his family’s. His size-extra-long graduation gown rippled as he stepped and paused, stepped and paused with the rest of the class, and marched across the stage when Mr. Wright called his name. When it came time to ceremonially flip the tassels, Grendel reached up – but it was John who moved the tassel.