Most of us will sit through at least one graduation this May or June. After the ceremony, faculty and parents will do as they have always done—they will wonder how this day could have come so quickly. They will tell stories of the graduates with fondness and humor. They will share memories of good times and especially of hard times. Most of all, they will speak with great love and affection for the students whose lives they have shared.

This past weekend I attended my nephew Jake’s high school graduation.

There is a photo of Jake on my dining room wall. He is about three years old. He is in the back of a pick-up truck loaded with wood, wearing a pair of overalls and looking a little like one of Dorothea Lange’s depression-era children. The photo is as much a product of the photographer’s imagination as it is a portrait of a particular little boy.

My nephew’s somewhat-staged photo and his somewhat-staged graduation reminded me how hard it is and yet how important it is to see and appreciate the young people in our lives for who they are today, not for who we imagine them to be or have been. The intensity of school life and of modern parenting, and the distances between many extended family members make this an enormously difficult undertaking. It is hard to be authentically present amidst the every-day messiness of home and school, and doubly hard if we are busy, worried, tired, distracted, or geographically distant. But it is perhaps one of the most important things we do as teachers, parents, friends, and family members.

In the end, this past weekend was not about the little boy on the farm, or the newly-minted graduate, or even the ways one has morphed into the other. In the end, it was simply about being fully present with and for Jake, on his own terms.

I found myself wondering: to what extent are our schools places where students can rely on the presence of steady, loving and listening adults who truly know and see them—not just at milestone moments, but through the many ups and downs of their years together? What a gift not to be reserved for special occasions.