It's been a whirlwind time the last few weeks, between getting the paper out and a couple of very important personal dates on the calendar - high-school graduation for my daughter and middle-school graduation for my son.

And I can't help but reflect on the difference four years made in the tone of the ceremonies that marked each one.

Eighth-graders from my son's middle school launched their ready-or-not leap into high school with a raucous awards ceremony June 13, where Tim picked up a handsome certificate.

The next day brought a final field trip over the Sellwood Bridge to Oaks Park, where they rode the Tilt-A-Whirl, ate hot dogs and curly fries, played carnival games and won large plastic inflated bats, which the boys promptly used to flog one another.

Then there was the barbecue on the last day of school, with opportunities for the future freshmen to flush their science, math and humanities teachers into a dunk tank on a 60-degree spring afternoon.

The triad of events celebrated the students' entry into yet another phase of not-quite-adulthood and gave them permission to continue acting like kids, albeit taller and more responsible ones, for a few more years.

The flavor at Kelly's commencement from Westview High School was far less cotton candy and way more fast-track mocha espresso.

These young men and women were definitely going somewhere, whether it was on to a higher education or directly into the ranks of America's work force - and it was time to step on board that train.

Perched near the top of the bleachers inside the cavernous Earle Chiles Center at the University of Portland June 3, our family took in all the pomp we could handle for one day, while I found myself wishing for far more circumstance.

Sprinkled throughout the three-hour ceremony were the requisite choral finale, the sentimental speeches and, at long last, the reading of the graduates' names and their crazy antics across the stage, signaling their emancipation from 12 years in the confines of the public-school system.

I wanted more than the resonance of David George Mills III's name called out over the public address system.

Tell me about the young woman with a burka peeking out from under her navy blue graduation gown, literally wearing her membership in the Muslim community on her bell-shaped sleeve. How did she endure the social scene at Westview, a model of multiculturalism on the one hand and a sea of typically self-absorbed beauty queens and macho kings on the other?

Give me the story of the young man from Samoa, whose several dozen family members screamed and stomped and waved their jackets above their heads as he strode up to shake the dignitaries' hands, turning around to give them a shout and a double fist-pump as they continued their cacophony for a good two minutes.

Kelly was one of more than 500 seniors walking the walk in cap and gown, each waiting for his or her turn to grab a diploma.

As for the ceremony itself, for me it was the school district's superintendent, Jerry Colonna - with whom I worked for a time when I covered education for the Valley Times, a sister newspaper to the News-Times - who brought to the fore the most poignant moments of the afternoon.

He read a poem by Don Welch, from his 'Gutter Flowers' collection, called At the Edge of Town.

It was about the value of work.

Hard to know which is more gnarled, the posts he hammers staples into or the blue hummocks which run across his hands like molehills.

Work has reduced his wrists to bones, cut out of him the easy flesh and brought him down to this, the crowbar's teeth caught just behind a barb.

Again this morning the crowbar's neck will make its blue slip into wood, there will be that moment when too much strength will cause the wire to break.

But even at 70, he says, he has to have it right, and more than right.

This morning, in the pewter light, he has the scars to prove it.

All work, Colonna told the assembled masses, is honorable. Do anything you want with your life, he suggested to the graduates, 'but whatever job you choose, do it to the very best of your ability.'

His was a valiant effort, largely lost, I think, among the myriad distractions of the group about to be sprung into the wider world.

Still, I'm happy he did it, glad he read that poem, because there might have been a few parents or grandparents, who, as I did, made a mental note and later Googled the author's name to get a copy off the Internet.

I'll type it for my daughter and fold it into the pages of her high school scrapbook, so that someday, when she needs to be reminded why she's taking such pains to craft a sentence just right, or volunteering for an extra shift, or leaving her office for three hours in the middle of the day to attend her own child's graduation ceremony, she'll know.

And my son after her, when he jumps to the threshold of what shape his life will eventually take.

All work is valuable. Every person has a story. Each minute is precious, and we need to spend them wisely, before they blow away.