I love this picture of me at five. In my very formal attire of cap and gown, if you look carefully, you can see that the gown is on backwards.
The picture was taken at my kindergarten graduation. It was my mother’s first experience with a cap and gown. My family had emigrated from Ireland about two years earlier, and formal graduations were a whole new experience for my parents, who had both finished school when they were about 13. On my graduation day, my mother dressed me up in the cap and gown, took these pictures (in front of my neighbor’s house, next to the one my family was renting) and sent me to walk the mile to school. She came up later for the ceremony with my baby sister. When I got to school, one of the classmates’ moms took one look at me, called me over and helped me to turn the gown around. To my mom, it made sense that the zipper always went in the back!
Since that first graduation, over the years, my mom probably had more than 30 encounters with caps and gowns. With eight kids in my family, it always seemed like someone was graduating from someplace — between grammar school, high school, college and beyond (I was the only one who had such a formal kindergarten graduation experience). If I were to start adding in the graduations of her 18 grandchildren, that number would only grow. That first graduation day, however, has forever been immortalized with her proud picture of me in the backwards gown.
Although life was not easy for my mother, with a limited education raising eight children in a new country, there was never a question in the USA of her children surviving beyond their fifth birthdays. From my work in ChildFund, I know the same is not true for millions of children around the world. In the past 24 years, fantastic progress has been made in reducing the number of children dying before they reach five — from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 48 deaths per 1,000 births in 2012.
We should celebrate that progress with pride and deep satisfaction knowing we’ve helped make the world a safer place to be a child. At the same time, since 6.6 million children are expected to die this year before they reach five, we need to shout it from the roof tops that more can — and should — be done to have more children celebrate that special day. This week, more than 100 groups (including ChildFund) are participating in 5th Birthday and Beyond to recognize both the successes and the challenges facing children worldwide. That’s why I’ve changed my avatar temporarily to my graduation picture.
We know how to help children survive beyond their fifth birthdays. We don’t need caps and gowns to make that possible but we do need the U.N., national governments, donors, NGOs, the private sector, local governments, communities and parents working together to ensure more kids celebrate that all important day. Who knows, maybe we can get another of those backward gown pictures as proof that we succeeded.