Commencement ’08 (kind of a drag!)

You would think that one of the very nice fringe benefits of being a teacher is to once a year get dressed up in the cool medieval academic regalia and go see off the seniors … especially if you have very fond memories of them (which this year I did).

You would think …. permit me my usual digression.

When I graduated from high school …. being that it was a fairly strict Catholic academically minded institution, graduation was serious. It went quick. There was no hollering or shouting, there were no beach balls being batted around: dignified was the by-word. The idea was that screwing around is what graduation parties are for. It made the ceremony significant, and it made it a fond memory.

I appreciate the role of ceremony and spectacle, when it is done correctly and for the right reasons. I do not like being the center of it, but I find it a curious bit of our shared sociological past. Oh, and the academic regalia is nice …. can’t beat them hoods to make you feel like a genuine professional educator.

When my brother graduated from public school (and not an awful one at that in 1994), things were different. There were kids coming into the gym still putting on their gowns, caps were tilted every which way. The kids who tended to not be involved in getting a lot of good grades had their families hooting and hollering like the Soviets were marching down Ridgeland. It was a pretty embarrassing affair. Even as the ceremony was ending, a security guard grabbed the first empty chair, shoved it across the floor, and said “OK, lets go, show’s over”.

My next graduation was at the university. I wanted no part of it. I knew this was bound to be as bad. My mother swore and hollered, and shamed me into it. In her words (approximately): “I toiled and worked for you to go to school, and I want to see you graduate; you will graduate on stage.” I decided that, despite the threats, I would do it. And of course, when my name gets called, my family, led by mom, hoots and hollers and embarrasses me. I realized that she didn’t care about my feelings. This was her moment. I shrugged and moved on. It was hardly the first time that had happened.

When I became a teacher, at the first school I taught at, I went through graduation once as a teacher ….. and I loved it far less than before. It seemed that the kids didn’t care that much. The parents only wanted to see their kid walk across the stage (or, more appropriately, wanted to hoot and holler as their kid walked across the stage), and the rest was mere filler. I began to agree. The speeches were pretty meaningless. A lot of parents were moving toward the exits when the assistant principal started reading a far too long piece of poetry by Maya Angelou. I swore it was going to be a long time before I did this again.

Definition of long time: 13 years.

I always managed to get out of this before, but this time, I figured with the good group of kids, and the fact that it has been a while, it was time to put the gown on again. For the first time, I even got to wear the really long crescent shaped sleeves, despite seven years having passed since earning my MS. One of our science teachers put her degree as “Physics Education”, and was puzzeled why her hood had sage green velvet ….. which is for physical education. I offered to switch as she got razzed. There were many teachers with screwed up colors (one guy with a degree from Northern ended up with a Harvard hood …. he got to brag for a night …. may be next year I’ll just go for broke and get MIT colors and trump him).

So, after years of dodging weather in our football stadium, the district moves all three schools to the Rosemont Theater. It is a great theater …. we can fit all of the graduates and faculty on the huge stage, and fit all of their relatives in the seats. Now, admitadly, we’re a big school. We have over 600 graduates in the class. There was an intro speech from the principal, and the six valedictorians combined to make one speech. After that it was diplomas and out.

When we got to our seats on stage (the staff was interspersed with the students), the first thing that happened: cell phones came out. Throughout everything, the kids were either playing games, texting, or actually calling friends across the stage and talking. In one case, a girl asked me how she was going to be able to get off stage once she had her diploma. I informed her that this wasn’t really possible, and that she wasn’t “getting” her diploma until after the ceremony. She immediately called her parents in the audience and said “I’ll be late for work because the gay ceremony won’t be over until late, and I can’t get out early.”

The hooting and hollering was pretty awful … two people had brought air horns. The people in the seats just wanted to be a part of the action. This time, even the graduates were joining in. When a kid would walk across the stage (invariably an NHS member), there was nothing, and some kids would start laughing: “they’ve got no friends”, or “how embarrassing, no one cares”.

I am hoping that I can find some new excuses to miss graduations for the next 13 years …. but it has given me pause to think.

Why exactly do we have these ceremonies? If it is for the parents, then I guess hooting and hollering is what it is all about. Who cares what the kids want? Maybe I was too hard on my mom. My graduation really was never about the work I put in, and I just should have realized that this was Mom Egan’s day to celebrate, and to hell with what I want or what I feel.

On the other hand, maybe it is for the students. I mean, as a teacher, I hope that it was the students doing the work for four years … their sweat and late nights and such. Shouldn’t they have the right to celebrate on their terms?

Of course, this assumes that the kids care …. I saw a lot of kids that didn’t seem to. They might as well have been off stage, with someone saying “you’re on” … they slip into a gown, slap a cap on their head, walk out, get a quick picture with the School Board President, and walk off stage, handing their gown to he next person. The kids could maybe sign up for a time (like their senior pictures at the beginning of the year. No speeches, no music ….. just a few pictures, here’s your certificate, “NEXT!” I honestly think a lot of kids would have taken this option, had it been offered.

This is a toughy ….. a lot of parents, I suspect, would say that graduation is their moment. When the occasion comes up when a kid misbehaves, and they lose their stage privileges at graduation, the parents often say “you are punishing us, not them”. I have heard that excuse more times than I care to remember. I know that my mom believed in that.

As a teacher, I say that the ceremony should be for the kids ….. not for a the parents.

But what about those kids and parents who want a ceremony, and want it dignified. They are forced to suffer through a ceremony pretty devoid of meaning, and very devoid of dignity.

Maybe the time has come to think about two ceremonies at schools:

1. The dignified ceremony ….. anyone who wants can come. No hooting. No hollering. Anyone with an air horn gets defenestrated from the balcony. You sit there, shut up. We promise to keep speeches to a minimum, We promise that you will get a smooth, fast running ceremony, you will be able to hear your kids name. Cell phones are checked at the door.

2. The do whatever the hell you want ceremony …. come in cap and gown …… football players can come in uniform. When your kid walks across the stage, fire a frickin bazooka in the air to celebrate. Bring a pack of trained dogs to bay at the appointed moment. If the kid wants to do cartwheels across the stage … awesome ….. if they want to come out on stilts …. the school isn’t liable, but go for it.

Come to one … go to both …. whichever you want.

As I said, graduations have become something of a drag …. unless you don’t mind co-opting the ceremony from everyone else to hoot and holler at your kid, embarrassing him in the process.

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