I’m a veteran of commencement exercises…occupational hazard when you work with teenagers.

The previous night I’d mentioned that I knew the back roads and best seats at one particular venue as I’d attended over 25 of them in that very arena. I was then charged with saving 33 seats in that location for not only my family, but for two other entire families as well. I know the drill so well that I was able to make that happen, and their only repayment was to cheer loudly for each other’s kids when their name was called. Everyone held up their end of the deal.

But this drill was a bit more personal. My youngest was one of the nearly 800 in her class who had spent the previous month knee-deep in the hoopla of slideshows, in-home receptions, family invasions, and other ways our community shows our children how proud of them we are.

I’m not sentimental about much in life. I’m the guy that puts up the Christmas decorations the day after Christmas because, well, man…it’s *over.* The notable exception to my sentimentality involves the women in my life as my wife and girls all have my heart in ways too deep to describe. I love them deeply.

And it was easy to get sentimental as we were choosing the 15 photos for the slideshow for the seniors at our church and which ones we’d put on display at our house for her reception. You have to go through all the photo books and edit 18 years worth of memories–from the ultrasound to the senior photo shoot–and get the best ones. I’m a sucker for that stuff.

The pictures set off memories at every turn…

…like when we chose “Tiger” for her middle name and chickened out before it was time to actually put it on the birth certificate. The logic was that a young golfer was turning pro and we didn’t want folks to think we named her after a pro athlete, but we didn’t seem to mind if they knew it was because of our love for our college football team. We figured they’d have trouble making the distinction so we took the safe route and went with “Elizabeth.” Every time we saw her full name in print later we wished we’d stuck with our guns, especially after we got to know her.

…like how she always carried her pink blanket over her shoulder like Linus and sucked her thumb when she walked.

…like how she loved to snuggle. She was my early riser, and would climb in my chair if I was reading the Bible or newspaper, she’d just pile up and put her head on my chest and just “be.”

…like how she went through life with such flair. She rocked every dress-up day at elementary school. One morning (which wasn’t a dress-up day) I let her know she’d apparently put on two different socks. She looked down at the one pink fuzzy one and the one purple one with animals on it and just said, “Dad, anyone can *match.*”

…like how we had to remind her to breathe during The Lion King on Broadway on our trip to NYC. She loved dance and theater because she was wired that way, not because she was pretentious.

…like how she commanded stage-presence in middle school/early high school. She was a ballerina at a high level. And when she hit the stage, she had that “it” factor that set her apart from the others that were close to her in talent…which, frankly, wasn’t many.

…like how she was fiercely independent. She could spend 6-weeks of her summer in Pennsylvania, Alabama or D.C. on her own with various ballet companies and get on planes by herself and live in a dorm and all that goes on to dance at places like, oh, The Kennedy Center without blinking an eye or missing her parents.

…like how “Tiger”-like she was. She danced a very important competition on a broken foot and smiled all the way through it. She never complained about all the ice-packs, knee braces, battered feet/toenails and other assorted ailments associated with that kind of demand on her body. 30+ hours per week in a dance studio punished her little 14-year-old joints & bones. She set goals and was laser-focused on attaining them.

…like how she just needs to decompress sometimes (just like her father does). I loved the nights when our decompression needs matched up and we’d watch Spongebob Squarepants or South Park and just laugh for an hour or two.

…like how she is one of the most naturally funny people I know. She can crack me up with a keen sense of observation and timing…and beautifully, she sees through the lies and nonsense that often passes for wisdom her in suburbia. She knows how to illustrate the absurd by mocking the absurd to a degree that I’m convinced she could be an improv/stand-up comedienne if she wanted to.

…like how she hoards shoes. I’ve never seen how happy a girl could be until the UPS guy rings the doorbell delivering the shoes she ordered. And how she has to order special furniture to give each pair their own display space.

…like how she loves fashion, and even designed and sewed her own prom dress. She sought out help from people that could help her, sure, but she knocked it out and got it done.

…like how she has an affinity for all things pink and princess-y. She never outgrew that stage. She also still knows how to play it.

…like how she still knows how to stand out in a crowd and always knows where the camera is:

And those couple of hours going through photo albums all came flooding back in the 5 seconds they called her name at graduation.

“Shelby. Elizabeth. McKinney.”

Tracy and I secretly wished, for the millionth time, that “Tiger” was the middle name.

The families we saved seats for all cheered loudly. Family cheered and took pictures of her stroll across the stage.

Afterward, we snapped a rare family photo:

And we celebrated well. As we should’ve.

So, Shelby, even if neither of us knows exactly where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing in the next few months, it’s reassuring knowing that all those traits that came to mind going through the photo albums are still true for you. I’m learning from you as you go through your journey, too. Those same traits serve you well and you’ll land on your feet. Of this, I’m certain.

The world is yours, Shelby.

And go get ’em, Tiger.