Last year about this time, I posted my message to the class of 2010, and while I tend to be exceedingly cynical about graduation and some of the other (in my opinion) overwrought aspects of The High School Experience (prom, pep assemblies, spirit week...), I do recognize how significant the earning of a diploma can be for kids.
As I sat through my high school's three hour long ceremony the other night, I was saddened that the ceremony itself couldn't be more about all the kids who were graduating. Instead, we had the typical parade of Valedictorians and Salutatorians. The class and ASB officers got their chance to speak. The athletic teams were honored (again and again, and then a few more times in case anyone missed it) and permutations of the clause "We did it!" were repeated a dozen times by and for kids for whom there was never really any question whether they'd be able to "do it."
Sure, everyone deserves their moment, but as the lists of scholarships for much-deserving students were read, as awards were doled out for high grades and other hard-earned accolades, it saddened me that some of the best stories weren't being told:
I saw kids walk across that stage as the first diploma-earning member of their family. I saw a young man for whom high school was a constant struggle pump his fist in the air as he claimed his diploma despite losing his step-father--his only father figure--to a tragic accident but days ago. I saw a few fifth-year seniors who had the boldness and perhaps the late-blooming maturity to realize that giving up could not be an option.
As I sat in my gown and hood, the irrational, emotional part of me wished that there could be two ceremonies to celebrate the end: one would for the Valedictorians and Salutatorians and the kids for whom there was never a question about finishing high school (and this is not to imply those kids did not face struggles or invest hard work--they absolutely deserve a celebration!) This ceremony would be a dignified and proper event where their achievements could be recognized and celebrated for the elite rather than as one more reminder reinforcing to the non-elite who is and is not worth the attention.
The other ceremony would be for the kids who were otherwise a hair's breadth away from obscurity. These would be the children with whom the counselors and teachers and paraprofessionals worked double duty because mom was too drunk or dad was back in prison. This celebration would be for the kids who learned in spite of, not because of, their home life--a life which in many cases did not include parents who had the time or capacity to read with them twenty minutes per day since birth. These are the kids whose struggles were not just in locating symbolism in a poem or resolving differential equations, but whose struggles further included getting their younger siblings dressed and to school and finding a way to earn money to feed the family.
This ceremony wouldn't necessarily be followed by gatherings of friends and family showering the graduate with platitudes and gift cards. After this ceremony, many kids would be changing clothes in the restroom in order to get to work on time. Others would be encircled by teachers and school staff because these adults knew they were the only adults in that child's life who would be present to welcome this graduate into this new stage of life.
Certainly, all graduates of the class of 2011 deserve recognition and congratulations. Certainly, the Valedictorians and other honored students sacrificed and invested and deserve applause. I recognize, too, in this ramble of mine that I have implied a false dichotomy--I do know that the lines in students' lives are not so clearly drawn, and that Valedictorians can rise from struggle and come from shattered home lives and kids on the bubble might be there by their own choosing and not life's gross circumstances.
We can debate the merits or validity of the high school diploma, but there is still symbolism to that ceremony--and in some cases marks the pinnacle of the educational achievement some students will achieve, whether by choice, skill, or opportunity. As we finish the year (and yes, my school was still in session until yesterday!) let's remember to not only celebrate the great successes of our highest achievers, but to also recognize the significance that finishing high school can hold to many of those who've perhaps escaped the radar of talent scouts or college recruiters.
Congratulations, class of 2011...especially to those for whom the statement "We did it!" means something more than greeting card fodder.