February 27, 2007

Michael McDaniel, RHS graduate

RHS grad Michael McDaniel and girlfriend Tiffany Gomes

“I was surprised to hear it was on the radio,” said Michael McDaniel, scanning the crowd and looking a little nervous.

“Until today, we were still calling people to get them to come. We didn’t think it’d be…” He trails off, watching as the crowd of hundreds filed in to the Redmond High School auditorium Wednesday night. His graduation – just his – is shaping up to be a bigger event than anyone imagined.

Michael, 17, was diagnosed with brain cancer in late 2005. In the fifteen months since then, he’s tried everything to fight the tumors growing inside his skull – surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation treatments and exotic little pills costing hundreds of dollars each. Despite these efforts, the prognosis is not good. A week and a half ago, with Michael’s health looking increasingly uncertain, school officials began planning a graduation ceremony for him.

Graduating has been a goal for Michael since his diagnosis, largely because, as a teenage boy, school is where he was supposed to be.

“I always enjoyed school. I always did well, I was athletic. I already had plans I wanted to do after high school, get my degree in physical therapy and go from there,” he said.

It’s a dispiriting thing, listening to a 17-year old boy talking about himself in the past tense. But as he goes on and gets distracted and turns to other subjects, he brightens. He talks about running track the spring before his diagnosis, how he’d get sick after every race, and its more dark humor than self pity when he sums up the headaches and the dizziness with a simple “now we know why.” He turns to art, and how his art classes at the high school left him cold, the way schedules and grades and all the other conventions of school manage to suffocate the creative process. He’s just getting warmed up when someone brushes by and taps him on the shoulder.
“Michael. It’s time.”

Michael enters the auditorium, and the audience turns and squirms in their seats to get a better look. By the time the orchestra plays the first six notes of Pomp and Circumstance, everyone has turned around, and the crowd cheers louder and louder and louder still as Michael makes his way to the stage. It’s a slow shuffle, at first, but there’s a there’s a definite bounce in his step by the time he hits the stairs.

It’s an unconventional ceremony with only one graduate. All the commencement address boilerplate about “live your dreams” and “do what you love” and “one person can change the world” is shelved in favor of all eyes on Michael, and he looks uncomfortable in the spotlight. He wrings his hands, and you can see his chest rising and falling beneath his dark red robe. After 45 minutes of songs and speeches and lavish praise, it’s finally over, and Michael exits the stage, diploma in hand. The band strikes up again, and a few beach balls are bounced around as the crowd begins to disperse.

Outside in the commons, Michael is still the center of attention. Maybe even more so as the gathering crowd backs him up against a cafeteria table for hugs and handshakes and other forms of congratulations. Dozens of cell phone cameras bob up and down, their tiny lenses all focused on the boy with the thin blonde hair and the metal hoop through his lip. But he’s at ease, laughing and smiling again, a teenager in his element, at school, among friends.

-- Scott Hammers

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