When we hear the word graduation, some may think first of caps and gowns, Pomp and Circumstance, and photos taken in May or June sunshine. Or maybe that’s just where my family is right now, with a senior in high school and a senior in college and a couple of those kinds of ceremonies looming large. But a few weeks ago, on a cold day in late January, I had an opportunity to attend a different kind of graduation: Two participants of the county drug court had successfully completed the program and were celebrating the chance to move on with their lives.
I’ve known about our drug court for years; a good friend serves as its coordinator and she has told me about its challenges and successes. But until I attended graduation, I hadn’t seen its impact closer up. For many drug court participants, the program is the end of the line: drug court or jail. It isn’t always an easy choice. The requirements of drug court are strenuous. There are numerous meetings, therapy sessions, random drug tests, and travel restrictions. Most must steer clear of their previous social connections and supports. Relationships with family have often been severely frayed or were part of the problem to begin with. Nearly all have experienced significant trauma. For many participants, finding work and housing is no easy feat. And all this work is done while relentlessly battling addiction, day in day out. It’s a heavy lift.
The graduation took place in a second-floor courtroom of the county courthouse, a room that on most other days is not so celebratory. J* and D*, the two graduates, sat on the wooden benches of the seating area with a few family members and close friends at their sides. One of the graduates, who was hardly older than my college senior, had his school-age children next to him. Other drug court participants and members of the community filled the other benches in the room.
Cheshire Superior Court Judge David Ruoff opened the ceremony and introduced the graduates. In his remarks, he acknowledged that he had seen them at their best and at their worst, and what struck me was how the judge’s demeanor exuded the pleasure he felt at seeing them succeed. He told the graduates that “criminal records and court files don’t ever show you the good stuff” but he made clear that he had seen the good in them, even on their worst days. Before he introduced others to speak, he presented them each a gift he had chosen, saying it had taken a great deal of thought to know what to get. He wanted the gifts not to make them think of him, but to think of themselves and how far they’ve come.
For J, who works in construction, Judge Ruoff chose a hammer. He told J to use it each day and be reminded that he is like a hammer, reliable and sturdy. He said he hoped the hammer would be a daily reminder that J is strong. And for D, who had found work in a local restaurant, Judge Ruoff chose a white chef’s apron, with a phrase across the front: keep it clean. The moment was moving because the gifts so clearly came from someone who genuinely wished them well and who clearly understood the strength it would take to keep their addictions and old patterns at bay.
At another point in the ceremony the graduates were able to have someone speak on their behalf. One of the owners of the restaurant where D works told D he was proud of him. He said, “a left turn instead of a right turn, and I might have been here in your place.” It was a beautiful moment of empathy and humility. (I made a mental note to eat more frequently at his restaurant.) Later in the ceremony, Judge Ruoff thanked the employer for giving so many drug court participants a chance with a job, and for being flexible when they needed to be in court.
A few others spoke before the graduates received their certificates. J and D had each chosen a staff member to speak, and they told the audience some of the stories of where J and D had started and how far they’d come. A poem was read. Nearly everyone reiterated that recovery is a life-long process, and because it’s life, there would be setbacks. They were encouraged to ask for help when they need it.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that a lasting impression for me that day was of the essential role of relationships in these journeys. The judge, the drug court staff, the community members and mentors who were there to support the graduates with encouragement and with jobs – everyone – gave a message that the graduates were known well and cared for. In our work in schools, we have identified five key indicators of what we call Radically Reimagined Relationships. The indicators are signals that something special is happening between and among members of the community. The first indicator relates to the overall culture. Is this a place where people feel a sense of belonging and well-being? Our second indicator refers to dispositions – internal qualities like humility, care, and curiosity about the thoughts and experiences of others – that are brought to the work. As I watched and listened, it was gratifying to see evidence of both of those crucial indicators, despite the differences in venue.
A few weeks before the graduation, I’d also had a chance to meet and hear a previous graduate speak. In her presentation, C described the journey she’d taken, the loss of her brother to drugs, and the loss of her children to the court system. Now two years sober and reunited with her children, she summarized her experience: “I used to get high due to having nothing to lose; now I’m sober because I have too much to lose.” I was thinking of C as I observed the ceremony for J and D, hoping that in a few years they, too, will be in such clear-headed and hopeful places.
And then, like at any graduation, the ceremony was done, the graduates and guests were urged to eat cake, and J and D left the courthouse with certificates and warm wishes, congratulatory letters from their Congressional Representatives, and a chance to seize a new moment and new possibilities.
image by Kristin Blais