We learned midweek 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.

But no, this isn’t another column about the coronavirus. Frankly, I’m sick of talking and thinking about it. And fortunately, not sick from it. No, today I hope you’ll indulge me as I gush about my favorite person in the whole wide world: my daughter Miranda.

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.

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 our 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’re about to cross 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. We would have been tickled either way.

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.

I’m taking this opportunity to thank every teacher, counselor, principal, classmate and friend who gave her encouragement and help over the past 12 years. You truly are amazing and do great work. Thank you for putting up with parents as well. You aren’t paid enough, in my opinion, for what you do.

The experts have moved Asperger’s from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to 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.

I sensed it profoundly because I’d been there myself, in those same tiny seats, possibly experiencing Asperger’s myself.

I knew how tough it was to make it through the day feeling like a freak no one liked, my words so devoid of value that I was doing a service to the world by staying quiet by myself over in the corner. I knew all too well the adolescent depression and anxiety she faced with each ringing of the homeroom bell.

What else could I do as a parent? It wasn’t practical to home-school her as much as I traveled for work. She’d have to put her head down, same as I had, and power through the days and months and years to come. 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.”

Of course, they didn’t have fancy names for disorders when I was a kid. 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. Hold your laughter. People with Asperger’s may have unusual responses to sensory experiences such as loud, abrupt noises. My daughter was terrified of going to the restroom. She avoided using the ones at her school, which manifested in some very compulsive habits that her teachers over the years have no doubt felt annoyed by. Thank you for your patience.

Combine that with the typical stuff that teenage girls go through, add in a boyfriend plus learning to drive, and you end up with quite the emotional rollercoaster. I can say, though, that 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.

With graduation ahead, 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!

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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