25 June 2010

Everyday Heroes

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
Prom Night 2010: Will & Emily, Uncle Bill, Elise
(My shirt is a hand-me-down from Will.)

My goddaughter's social calendar this week has been especially charged: she is graduating from high school, and a great number of events (awards ceremonies, the prom, the graduation ceremony itself) have all been booked in a short span of days at the end of the school year. This hectic pace is intended, I think, as a kind of final test: if the children survive, they may be considered ready for college.

To some extent, this week is merely an official marker of a process that was completed a few years ago: Emily is a young woman now, and not the tiny blond bundle who howled like a fleet of fire engines any time I tried to pick her up. (She had no serious objection to me, in principle, but I was obviously her brother's toy, not hers, and she preferred that I keep my distance.) She is beautiful and often wise beyond her years, a gifted scholar, artist and athlete, with a questing intellect and a passionate commitment to worthwhile causes.

For her as for her brother (first of all my namesakes), godfathering has been an easy job. Mostly, I just sit back and marvel at them. On occasion, I don't even have to move: they come to me, to Paris, for example, as they did a few years ago, or to New York, as Will did last week, with his girlfriend. We met in the city like grownups, over coffee and dessert. This was gratifying for me, a sort of reenactment of a J.D. Salinger story, with the happy exception that I wasn't required to kill myself at the end. Will has just completed his sophomore year at Bard, the school that will welcome Emily, as well, in the fall. I wonder whether the administrators know how lucky they are to receive such extraordinary young people.

When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?

That I really can't claim any part of the success of my godchildren became clear to me (yet again) as I walked around the Upper West Side with Will and the lovely Alex. We visited various landmarks from the youth I shared with Will and Emily's mother, and sometimes with their father. Yes, Elise and Chris got serious about each other while Elise was my roommate, but the only credit I get for that is that I didn't annoy Chris any more than I did. (That was plenty, but not enough to scare him off altogether.)*

The real work falls not to godparents but to parents, and it's here that my admiration for Elise Goyette -- always pretty exalted -- reached a glittering peak. Because both kids have learning disabilities, extra effort has been required to express and then to develop their fearsome native intelligence. Both kids are so smart, in fact, that for a long time their teachers barely understood that there was any problem at all. Once the reality became clear, however, Elise snapped into action.

Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?
(George wasn't Emily's prom date this year, but he's a good egg.)

All her life, she may have been in training for this job; now her innate organizational skills and her boundless energies found a focus, and a purpose that refined and empowered all of her abilities. She researched options, resources, and alternatives, and she exploited them relentlessly, until both kids had acquired the tools they needed to learn -- and to learn better than almost any other kid in America.

At home, Elise created an environment that fostered creativity and enhanced study. No chapel is more sacrosanct, no library quieter than her dining room at homework time, with the kids' books and papers arrayed and the computer at the ready. (An outsider visiting her would find it impossible to believe that teenagers lived in the same house.) Sometimes I've sat beside the kids as they worked on their English essays, and Emily in particular is an editor's dream who really would stay up all night if it meant finding the right concluding sentence for her opening paragraph. Other writers spend their whole lives without ever touching on the clear, open-hearted prose style that is Will's by nature.**

All the while, Elise, single again, has held down a steady job and faced the sorts of day-to-day dramas that every human being must face -- but she never lost her sense of mission.

Elise, blossoming even as we gaze

The results are there for anyone to see. Will and Emily are serious scholars, whipsmart and unstoppable. Their college is one of the finest in the nation. And I couldn't be prouder of them.

At graduation exercises each year, we speak of "commencement" and remind ourselves that the end of one chapter is the beginning of another. I will need no such reminders, however, because I am looking already to the beginning of the next chapter. My godchildren have the ability to do whatever they please, and I'm eager to see what pleases them.

And as for their mother -- Elise Goyette has never been one to rest on her laurels. Having achieved so much already, she is just getting started. Believe it.***

Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years

*NOTE: I can't be blamed for Elise and Chris' divorce, either, though it's true that, at the wedding, Elise and I accidentally took the dance that's traditionally reserved for the bride and groom. In any case, Chris remains a great guy and a terrific father.

**Will's college-application essay on the Rubik's Cube -- his mastery of it, his application of its principles in other kinds of problem-solving, and his use of it to meet girls -- was featured on NPR in 2008.

***I have a slight suspicion that I may be one of her upcoming projects. So be it. Resistance is futile.


elise said...

And strangely enough this was posted exactly 22 years after that wedding dance on June 25, 1988.

Thank you, dear Bill. The nicest thing anyone has written about me - ever.

And you're right. As the children invent themselves, it is time for us to reinvent ourselves. Here's to the next adventure.

Love, Elise

William V. Madison said...

UPDATE: Will Wissemann will read his essay on the Rubik’s Cube tonight at the Walters Museum in Baltimore, as part of a program entitled “College and Arts Community Night: Totally Wick(ed) Awesome.”