The mortarboard has been tossed, the tassel turned, the gown gone. We sat in a stadium full of pride, parents up in the bleachers hovering over their kids one last time. As if designed by Zach, Cal Poly’s graduation was efficient: short speeches, spaced seating, punctual pronouncing.
Forgoing the usual thousand-named alphabeticals, the first to arrive were the first to leave, having passed through a dual-threaded system of readers and diplomas. An hour later he was done; two hours later draining a keg with college friends and their aghast parents.
He starts his career next week, but I’m already sitting at his desk, wondering how we got here so fast. I know most middle children aren’t used to the spotlight, so I hope Zach has his sunglasses on for the next few minutes.
He was an engineer-in-training even in elementary school, back when he would ride the “world’s heaviest bike” to school every day. As he and his siblings rode away from home each day, we borrowed a line from “The Princes Bride” movie, yelling after them, “Have fun storming the castle!” (Something they may not know: once they were out of ear shot, we continued the movie quote, asking each other as we closed the front door, “Think it will work?” – “It would take a miracle.”)
When Zach was young, his inquisitive energy turned to curiosity about the world around him. Seeing a skeleton, he wondered aloud how God could make a skeleton out of dog bones. He figured out that he could count to infinity, “98…99…infinity!” He once asked his mom if she’d “rather have retractable claws or dreadlocks you could control?” (I’m going with the claws)
It’s been a thrill to watch him grow, not just in depth but also in breadth. He’s stormed castles around the world, including an actual castle in Scotland. There he helped his great, great uncle Jim sneak off against doctor/wife warnings, to slip down a 3-story water slide. Their 9- and 81- year-old smiles were equally mischievous. In high school he went further afield, to Cuba, then the Philippines, then Guatemala, and Mexico; he spent a college semester surfing and learning Spanish in Costa Rica. He doesn’t just travel, he learns, observes, and works to understand differences. He’s one of the best people to discuss controversial issues with, not only seeing but also researching both sides. His athleticism is graceful, rolling through years of hockey, volleyball, soccer, and surfing.
He went to college to be an engineer; now he is one. More accurately, he went to engineering school because he IS an engineer. These were mere hobbies: building a surf-tracking app, a Spotify-favorites website (try it out!), a disc golf shot tracer. The rest of us were just figuring out how to throw a disc – in college he was tracing its path with computer vision software like pro golf on TV. In high school, he built an automated dog feeder with a cereal dispenser and a “raspberry pi” single-board computer. For years it satisfied Maggie’s salivating promptly at 7:30am, whether we were awake or not. (Can’t tell you how great it was to vaguely hear that thing spinning on a Sunday morning as I yawned and went back to sleep)
Being a middle child means you must share your parents from start to finish. He didn’t get those early or later years alone – and given how great his parents are, that was probably a real loss. Whereas the pandemic was thought to ruin everything, this was one of its unexpected gifts: when things shut down, Zach came home and for several months the middle child became an only child. What a great time to share with him. He is a great roommate, housemate, hard worker, chef, and all-around chiller. He and his mom had so much fun together playing cards, trying out new foods and drinks, and solving crosswords and jumbles.
One night Zach was trying out a new board and asked me to go surfing with him. We were out in the water for a memorable couple hours. As the sky changed from light to dark, the sinking sun held out her hand and blew white haze across the purple mountains back on shore. Zach and I shared the ocean that night with a dolphin family hovering just outside us, coming into our depth to catch one wave that could have been Zach’s. We later rode home across the glowing bluffs, with sore shoulders and noodled arms, pumping a peddle just enough to glide the trail home, arriving just at the moment day gives into night, parking the bikes under the fluorescent garage lights and duck diving inside. I didn’t catch many waves that night, but I was there, and it was a highlight of those special months together.
His calming demeanor can be as sacred as that sunset – but it wasn’t always so. He could be feisty as a kid, especially when he was bored or couldn’t master something, but Zach’s Zen has grown with his age. He once kicked his second-grade teacher: given the end-of-school options of a hug or high-five, he strategically went low and showed his appreciation by popping her in the shins. Much of the trouble at home came from things like front-yard football with his brother. Zach knew the rules, or the correct song lyrics, or the facts, and was stuck playing with a brother who didn’t seem to care for any of those specifics. With his sister he fought the battle with words, tiring of her questions, her dress-ups, her big plans that often involved telling him what to do. At about age five he finally retaliated, clapping his hands together like a bouncing boxer and said, “enough talking about my issues, let’s talk about your issues!”
But now I’m sitting at his desk, remembering it all and looking forward to the adventures ahead. He’s moving out in a month, and in a quirk of the work-from-home quarantine, he’s starting his first salaried job remotely and will thus begin his career in his childhood house. The place where his creativity turned into creations, where he learned to count to infinity, where his ingenuity fed the dog. There is a sweetness about Zach you might not know from afar, and damned if I’ll be the one to share his secrets (but he does love a good puppy playing video).
He is a pleasure to be with, to learn with, and hopefully, to share a desk with. I think it’s safe to say the miracle worked out, so I say again to you Zach, have fun storming the castle.
♦ weekendswell ♦
In the mood for more graduation tales? Read about walking a rainy Seattle sidewalk three years ago to another graduation.