Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 25, 2016

It’s Graduation Time. What to Give?

It’s that time of year: high school students are about to graduate and transition to the next phase of their lives. They may plan to go to college, start all-night gigs as a DJ at raves, or, if they’ve already been studying programming, go to work as VP for new product development at SnapChat.

Note: if they’ve signed a contract to go straight from high school to playing professional sports, you are excused from this post. Send them a graduation card telling them where you’ve always wanted to live, and they’ll buy you a house there.

Whatever their path, your task as uncle, aunt, second cousin or lifelong best friend of their mother or father is to determine an appropriate graduation present: after-shave? (if he’s shaving yet); a fancy pen like a Mont Blanc or the traditional Cross engraved with their name (or just their initials, if they’re not that important to you); or perhaps that Oculus Rift headset rig (if you are the totally cool aunt with unlimited means)?

I once graduated from high school. I received a graduation gift that I’ve kept and used ever since. It cost, in that distant day, $6.00, according to the price printed on it. It’s one of the most thoughtful presents I’ve ever received. It was perfect at the time, and has become more valuable to me with passing decades.

Few 17 year-olds are all one thing. I was a typical mix: I played some sports (here we await comments from blog readers who knew me then saying, “Not very darned well”), was clueless about girls, miserable at Algebra and loved to read. I read typical things for a teenager of my day: science fiction, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye (primarily because it was frowned-upon by the school), Poe, Twain, comic books. I discovered The Lord of the Rings and started a lifelong association with Mr. Tolkien.

I read a lot of poetry. My dad’s college anthology of English literature was on the shelf: a massive tome. I read extensively in it, especially the poetry. I skipped all those essays by Newman and Huxley and Bacon and those cats. I’ll read ’em some day, I swear. I did read practically all the poetry, except for the extensive pieces in dated language by Milton and Spenser and their ilk. To this day, I may not have read all of “Paradise Lost,” even though I endured an entire undergraduate class in it, and was supposed to (10,000 lines!). I did subsequently get through “The Faerie Queene,” but it is heavy plowing, my brothers and sisters.

I devoured masses of poetry by Pope, Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Yeats, Keats. For a while I was mired in a fascination with Oscar Wilde’s rather overly dramatic critique of the death penalty, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” memorized huge chunks of it, and can still call forth a lot of it on demand:

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
   That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
   With its adder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
   Before it bears its fruit!

Exactly the thing to resonate in the soul of the nerdy teen. Were it today, I’d certainly be devouring (pun intended) tales of zombies and vampires.

My favorite, though, was A. E. Housman (1859- 1936). His evocative expressions of longing, loss and regret were a perfect channel for the vague, restless doubts of the puzzled, clueless adolescent. The protagonists (always male) of his poems are always shouldering their packs and wandering along dusty, moonlit lanes contemplating the loss of old friends, old hopes and dreams, immersed in memories of happier, sunnier days that will not come again.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom about the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.


And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

Perfect. And perfectly lovely poetry, too.

That poem, published in 1896, is among Housman’s earlier work. Later, Housman’s poetry was — like the art of an entire generation — shaped by the devastating impact of WWI. Housman’s predisposition to melancholy rumination on tragic loss and the premature death of the young was made manifest by a conflict that cost the United Kingdom the lives of approximately 2% of its population.

My parents gave me a copy of The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman. I didn’t expect it, and it was a delightful surprise (they must have ordered it). I still have it. Here it is, the dust jacket displaying the marks of trailing in my retinue for the ensuing 47 years.

Housman Brad Nixon

It comes off the shelf as often as any of my books, and more than many, as it did just this week. That reminded me again of what a single, thoughtful gift can signify. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

That after-shave won’t last a year, whether it’s used or not. The pens will endure, but require refills, if any of today’s graduates still write with pens. There’ll be another, better version of the Oculus Rift headset next year; the year after that, it’ll be superseded by something better. A book, though, might still matter when that graduate reaches an age they cannot even envision now. Good luck to them.

From far, from eve and morning

And yon twelve-winded sky,

The stuff of life to knit me

Blew hither: here am I.


Now ─ for a breath I tarry

Nor yet disperse apart ─

Take my hand quick and tell me,

What have you in your heart.


Speak now, and I will answer;

How shall I help you, say;

Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters

I take my endless way.

© Brad Nixon 2016. The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman © Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965



  1. How amazingly timely your post is! I have EXACTLY the problem you describe, only worse.

    We just got an announcement that the daughter (whom I have never met) of a distant friend (lives in Florida) with whom I went to law school 40+ years ago in California (where I live) is graduating from the U. of Florida. I have no knowledge of any of the daughter’s interests. My law school friend and I still exchange holiday and anniversary cards annually. That’s about the extent of our contact. Any suggestions for a graduation gift?


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