My niece, Déjà’s , graduation from high school in Cambridge was like attending a major sporting event with a ceremony thrown in for good luck. Three thousand people jammed into the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School gymnasium/auditorium to see their loved one join the 400 graduation cap and diplomamembers of their class and receive the most important piece of paper of their entire school life – that coveted high school diploma. Standing room only soon became the remaining available space for spectators in that huge auditorium, which, by the way, was the size of two professional-sized basketball courts. People also came through the school’s second floor halls that opened on to second-level gallery seats.  The place was, well, packed. I had seen nothing like this place during my high school years. I was awed the spectacle of it all.

The drama – and let us be clear here, graduation day IS Drama Day – began early. My twin called, told me she was sneaking out of work in Cambridge, and wanted to pick me up in Boston, at Massachusetts Avenue and Huntington Street at 5 p.m. sharp. She didn’t want to be late.

Late? Is this my twin High Priestess and self-proclaimed Queen of Tardiness, telling me to be on time?  This is a new one.

I was at the appointed place on time, as ordered. She was about five minutes late, not bad.  But as you may know, years of habitual lateness is just like an infectious disease. It can spread throughout a family and is difficult to break.  When Vida called her husband, the family was just starting to dress.

Graduation would begin in one hour.  “We should be there,” I thought.  When we got to the house 15 minutes later, Déjà, who by the way, looked spectacular in a mini-dress (solid black a-line skirt bottom with a spaghetti–strapped cream-colored chiffon top) was still working on her hair.  Her father and a brother were putting on their suits.

Oh, no, I remember my graduation from the Jeremiah E. Burke High School for Girls.  I think the 100 or so girls who graduated in 1970 (Lord, that happened in the last century) had to be there an hour early or no diploma. They would mail it to you.

I imagined it was going to be that way for the kids from her school.  I was urging them to hurry.  My twin started yelling at me. “Don’t push them. We will just play it by ear. Go sit down in the living room,” the high priestess and Queen of Tardiness has screamed. I went to the living room and watched TV.  We left just 20 minutes before graduation started.  It was the height of rush hour on the narrow streets of Cambridge, which was filled with drivers from Harvard, MIT, and the other businesses and hospitals in the area.

Outside, Déjà met other graduating girls from her high school.  It was hugs and screams all around. The kids decided they would pack themselves into Twyla’s, Déjà’s older sister, car and drive to the graduation together.  (Girls scream!) The grown-ups, that is me; Peter, Vida’s husband; and Peter’s son from a previous marriage, went to the graduation in the family van.

Within one block of the high school, traffic stopped.  Little did I know then that 3,000 people and the police were all descending there and most had gotten their parking spot. My twin decided she would find a place to park, and we would walk the rest of the way.  I guess Twyla had decided the same thing, because as I crossed on to the school campus, Déjà and her girlfriends ran past us with Aaron, Déjà’s older brother,  running behind her screaming, “Déjà you dropped your shoe. Your shoe!”  She grabbed it as if they were in a relay race and dashed for the door. We followed, running.

We ran in the door, and I pushed through the crowd in time to watch her make it to her class and her spot. They were walking down the center aisle. People were crowing the aisle to see them.  I saw Déjà, and screamed out her name as if she were a rock star.  “Déjà, Déjà. My little Déjà.”  She passed me.  Hand on cap; head high. (Get your hankies out and weep with me. She is all grown up!)  All right, all right, back to the story.

Tardiness does not bring the best seats in the gym. Binoculars were needed to view the stage from where I sat.  And even if I had them, it would have been nearly impossible to see through the sea of graduation balloons and little tots standing on their seats. Forget about seeing where Déjà was sitting.

Now the forgettable speeches began, and the place took on the true air of an indoor sporting event, complete with crowds walking the aisles as if they searching for the concession stand.  While the principal, officials, and top students were telling the soon-to-be grads how they were they going on to college and the “real world,”  a group of true “tardyies”  began banging on the heavy metal doors that the Cambridge police were manning.

Soon it began to sound like Vikings were storming the building with a battering ram.  The police went out and finally allowed them inside.  Now the real, real late crowd sauntered in as if a certain entitlement granted them this moment.  Among the group was this soon-to-be grad in her cap and gown.

When I saw her, I knew exactly what had to be done. All righty then, I quietly bowed my head and passed on the mantle of High Priestess and Queen of Tardiness to that child. “Long live the New High Priestess and Queen of Tardiness,” I thought. “Girl, this is your graduation. How late can you be? May God have mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Oh, in case you were wondering, my twin and Twyla both found parking spots. Twyla joined us, but soon left to help her mother with the camera. Vida was trying to work her way to the front for pictures.

Of all the speeches only a few things were memorable.  I do remember when it was announced that the salutatorian going to Yale. “Hey, had enough of Cambridge, Harvard and MIT,” I thought.  Another was for the class president.  The applause for her was long and sustained from the class. Politicians long for that kind of affection. She must have been a good president.

Finally, it was time to call the names.  When Déjà’s name was called, I was shameless. I jumped up, screamed, and punched the air with one arm, “Whoop, whooop, whoooop, that is my niece graduating. My Déjà. Now go on and earn your BA, MA, and PhD!!! (Yes, I did scream that.) Go Déjà, Go! Whahoooooop!”  I was so loud that the rowdy crowd in my section fell silent.  I turned around and realized that they were all staring at me.  (OMG!)

A hint of embarrassment came over me.  As I was sitting back down, I noticed that Aaron, my nephew, who was seated to my right, was roaring in hysterical laughter.  His Aunt Victoria, the quieter, more reserved one, the one who was wearing a conservative skirt, shirt, and flats, had just hollered louder than any cheerleading captain could.  He was cracking up.  The polite Asian family, seated in front of me, looked shell shocked. But to my left, a few seats away, was Muslim woman, in traditional hijab (head covering) and dress.  She looked over to me, smiled and gave me a shy “thumbs up.”  We both laughed.

The roll call of names was no civil affair with polite applause and some cheers as with my graduation. Some grads egged on the crowd for applause, some danced to their diploma, and some raised their hands to the heavens. Yes, a party atmosphere prevailed, complete with entire rows of cheering relatives, friends and air horns.

When all was over, more hugs, kisses, screams and pictures took place on the school lawn. Then it was off to the Olive Garden for Déjà’s graduation dinner and then home.  In two weeks Déjà begins college at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

One more thought: This high school, which is flanked by two of the most prestigious universities in America, is the only high school in Cambridge.  It is also one of the most international and culturally diverse that I had ever seen.  Many came here seeking a better education and life for their children and their children’s children as my parents did.  Many received it.  I can only wish for them, as I do for my nieces and nephews, the very best in the years to come.