Tonight is my only child’s high school graduation. I am so very proud of my girl.

We learned a week ago that Fort Payne High School would be having an in-person graduation commencement ceremony after all. This seemed unlikely just a week ago as we remained on lock-down to contain the community spread of COVID-19 novel coronavirus. But then Gov. Kay Ivey said “Open ‘er up” and the floodgates exploded under the accumulated pressure of thousands of people eager to leave their houses.

Tonight, I hope you’ll indulge me as I gush about my favorite person in the whole wide world: my daughter Miranda.

I’m not getting to parade her around as the best of my creations, so I am indulging myself a bit in trumpeting how wonderful she is here in this space.

She’s in the Class of 2020, so the insane developments of this year have been especially relevant to our family.

We mourned the absence of a senior prom, Class Night, and all that stuff that makes us misty-eyed realizing that the end is near.

The end is no longer near. It’s done. She’s alumni now.

I don’t know if words alone can convey just how proud I am of Miranda as she finishes up her senior year at Fort Payne High School.

Yes, every parent shares that sentiment and thinks that their kid, in particular, is super-special, but I also feel great relief knowing that after what’s felt like an insurmountable challenge at times, we’ve crossed that finish line. That may be cause enough to hold graduation – a sense of closure that simply getting a diploma in the mail can’t match.

I wrote that last sentence a week ago when I presumed we would be attending in person. I guess that achieving of closure is an intellectual exercise.

Raising any kid is tough stuff, but my daughter has faced a lot of difficulties, most notably recovering from an early hearing impediment and dealing with Asperger’s, a highly functional form of Autism. You might never guess, just looking at or talking to her now, that she’s an “Aspie.” Which is kind of the point of all this schooling – giving our kids the best possible shot at life.

The experts have moved Asperger’s from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to the general autism spectrum, but it is characterized by difficulty interpreting social cues, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. As such, she’s struggled throughout her school years to form close friendships or engage in the “give and take” of normal conversation.

When she was younger, I enjoyed having lunch with her at Williams Avenue School, sitting with her class, and observing. Some of the other children would look at her like she was some kind of weirdo, but I knew what was really going on in her head: that desperate longing to be liked, putting on a performance that may have felt over-the-top because she was emulating what she perceived to be normal friendly behavior.

All I could really do was offer my empathy, my love, offer to help with her schoolwork, and explain that better days lay ahead. I’ve been her cheerleader, one of many, screaming for her to keep on keepin’ on. Or, as put by the blue tang Dory in one of her favorite childhood movies, “Just keep swimming.”

One of my favorite portraits of her. At a junior high dance, being the icebreaker who got all of her classmates who was trying to look cool to start dancing.

For all of the pitfalls of growing up now, at least the school system provides some specialized support services.

Few things are more heartbreaking for a parent than realizing that your child has an impediment that will essentially tie one hand behind his or her back.

So, forgive me if I feel a sense of triumph that this wonderful kid is beyond all of that, is stronger for having endured it, and has a bright future ahead.

Getting here took a lot of help from people who love her, including her mother and my sister Anita, who took it upon herself to pick Miranda up from school and help her with her homework on many a day when she was younger. Thanks, sis.

Being on the autism spectrum is tough, but it doesn’t DEFINE someone. And those with the condition generally display greater capacity for imagination and symbolic thinking in many cases. So, what seems like a curse can become a blessing once a person steps out from under the thumb of generic curriculums and standardized testing.

I knew a tough road laid ahead when she started at Wills Valley Elementary – the year the system added all automatic flush toilets to the campus. People with Asperger’s may have unusual responses to sensory experiences such as loud, abrupt noises.

Challenging as it’s been, I’ve never worried about my daughter being cruel or intentionally getting into trouble. Maybe she’s totally got me snowed and she’s secretly the rotten ringleader of the local teenage crime gang, but as far as I can tell, I’m blessed to have a great kid with a wonderful heart.

And I cherish every moment along the way, even the tough ones when I wanted to cry with her.

I am so very proud knowing how far this young woman has come from that scared, fragile child. She is smart, funny, loving, and awesome in so many ways.

At least I can acknowledge what she’s overcome and how proud I am of her in this blog post. I can at least have that, hopefully without embarrassing her. I probably do that a lot and she’s simply kind enough not to tell me.

Now that the school year from Hell is finished, Miranda wants to study computer science and will be enrolling at Northeast Alabama Community College.

My advice to her (and all graduates) is to seize curiosity and the drive to make learning a life-long joy rather than something a person stops doing once there’s a piece of parchment on the wall proving they took classes.

To the Class of 2020 and their families, congratulations!