Why I’m Going to Start Attending Graduation

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I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a teacher, but I’ve always skipped graduation.  

Even though now I’ve been a high school teacher long enough that I no longer possess a shred of coolness in my students’ eyes (“Miley Cyrus?  Isn’t that Billy Ray’s daughter?”), I hadn’t actually attended a single graduation at the high school where I work until just a few weeks ago.

Why, you ask?  Am I just another lazy teacher?  Some union rulebook-thumping clock watcher who’d rather listen to “Achy Breaky Heart” than linger at his desk after 3 o’clock?  Or am I too emotional — the stereotypical mushy educator who’s afraid he’ll start crying in public while watching his beloved students walk across the stage?

Neither!  First of all, I’m not concerned about staying late at work, although I don’t do this as often as I did during my first few years teaching, when I logged Wall Street stockbroker hours (albeit for Walmart stockboy pay).  As for being mushy, anyone who knows me knows that I am about as emotive as Sylvester Stallone.  The last time I cried, toys were involved.

So why haven’t I attended a single graduation?  

The simple answer is, I’m always busy.  Graduation happens on a Friday night at the end of the school year when I’m usually up to my eyelids in grading final exams and papers.  When seniors are donning robes, I’m usually about as guarded with my free time as Donald Trump’s attorneys, and hanging around school until 8 pm for graduation isn’t usually a priority.

Also, graduation isn’t really meant for teachers.  It’s for the kids and their families.  It’s for Little Johnny’s parents to be able to sit in the bleachers and say,

“Wow, can you believe our boy is graduating from high school?”

“Well, he spent most of high school out in his car smoking a bong the size of a small maple tree.  So , no I can’t believe it, actually.”

For teachers, graduation is strangely redundant.  Chances are, we’ve already said our goodbyes.  We’ve already had the kinds of heart-warming moments that we educators live for, such as informing a kid that although he is in danger of failing your class because he forgot to do any of his homework during the fourth quarter of the year, and also during the other three, all he has to do is to show up for the final exam and not vomit on it and he will get to graduate.  You don’t need to attend graduation when you’ve had that kind of connection with a kid.

We already know about next year’s plans too: the college nursing program, the military enlistment, the year-long internship playing World of Warcraft in your mother’s basement.  We don’t need graduation to learn about this stuff.

We’ve even given out gifts to some of our students.  This year, taking a page from legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson, I decided to give out books.  My students shook my hand and said “Thank you” with looks that said, yes, they’d definitely be checking out the Sparknotes version this summer.  It was just like in class.

Then there’s another small issue that usually keeps me home: high school graduation is about as exciting as watching lettuce grow.  This is especially true during the 15 or 85 minutes they spend reading off every kid’s name and handing out diplomas.  As a sensitive, empathetic educator, you definitely want all kids to be recognized for how unique they are — just not individually.  You clap enthusiastically for the first few, then you think, “Can’t we just skip ahead to the Zs?”

It’s even worse if they give out any awards.  As a teacher, you know how much these mean to kids.  But as someone sitting on hard bleachers, you’re thinking, “Who gives a shit about the Community Service Award?  You know what would be a community service?  Not giving out any more awards!”

Then there are the speakers.  Ours this year was U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who, thanks to a strange echo in the gym, sounded like he was trying to talk while eating a turkey sandwich.  I wish we’d had subtitles.  I think he was saying, “PLEASE don’t vote again for the guy who looks like he tans at Vermont Yankee.”

So as I mounted the stage myself, I was thinking about all these reasons I never attended.  But now I was on the stage because I had one reason I did attend: I had a role.  

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Like all teachers at my school, I’m given a small group of students to host in my homeroom every day from their seventh grade year until their graduation (or until I’m transferred to a prison school in New Mexico for trying to show “13 Reasons Why” in class.) My group was graduating this year, and so I was to stand on stage when their names were called, and to shake hands with them after they collected their diplomas.

As my first homeroom student, a tall young man, came across the stage, time slowed.  Here was a guy I’d known since he was 12 years old and immature and now he was a confident young man headed off to his first-choice college.  It was as though the entire six years of knowing him passed before my eyes as he approached.  As he came up to me, he put his hand over his heart in a gesture of thanks.  I did not expect this.  We decided in a split-second not to shake hands.  Understand: I am definitely not a hugger, at least not at school.  I am almost unfathomably awkward in these meeting and goodbye situations, am somewhat reserved by nature, and as a public school teacher, I’m deadly aware of avoiding unwanted physical contact or of showing favorites in any way.  But right then, a formal handshake with this young man who’d meant so much made absolutely no sense.  We shared a bear hug on the stage.  With that, he was gone, and the next student was coming toward me, triggering the same wave of emotions, the same sense of six long years encapsulated into a single ten second stage walk.  I hugged him too.  With each of the rest, the same wave of emotion flooded over me: the sheer awesomeness of how far each of them had come in six years, and the remembered gratitude at choosing a profession that allowed me to experience such moments.  It occurred to me that I’d labored for six years not over the production of goods or the making of money, but over the development of human beings.  Then, just like that, the last student had crossed the stage.  We hugged, and then they were gone, literally and symbolically walking out of high school for good.  

These days, with a high school diploma guaranteeing less and less economic security, it’s easy to dismiss high school graduation as amounting to very little: just a blip on the horizon of college-bound achievers, or a wholly inadequate stopping point for their poorer classmates.  It’s tempting to read high school itself as little more than a perpetrator of existing class disparities: a loading place for well-off kids to pile on AP classes and extracurriculars, while their peers languish in remedial courses before saying goodbye to formal education and disappearing into a life of hardship.  But to cynically castigate American public schools in this way is not only to ignore their successes with combating poverty, but is to fundamentally miss what makes them unique.  In an era of soaring college tuitions — it’s interesting to remember (as I frequently remind sticker-shocked college applicants) what a noble idea publicly funded community schools are.  The notion that a man like me (who does not have children) pays equally for another man’s children to attend high school at a reasonable rate is wonderfully civic minded.  And while any high school must bow to the inevitable socioeconomic disparities within its student body, the best high schools try as often as possible to heterogeneously mix their students.  The last two Vermont governors, both wealthy and powerful men, have resided in our school district, but so have the sons and daughters of the kind of poverty and addiction that these governors have sought to alleviate.  In an era when we increasingly do not listen across party lines, public schools are, as a colleague of mine once said, “the last places in America where we have to listen to each other.”

Seen in this light, a high school graduation like the one I attended this June is the epitome of the adage about raising a child: “It takes a village.” A high school graduation is much more than about teachers or about families.  It’s about communities.  It is truly a community event — or it should be.  In a time when the weaves of so many traditional social fabrics — churches, neighborhoods, even families — are being pulled apart, the richness of a community-based rite like high school graduation seems even stronger and more important for our children.  As a teacher who commutes some distance to educate these students — a hired gun — and one who teachers older, ostensibly more independent students, it’s easy to forget just how much a part of this community I am myself.  And as a professional educator just trying to survive the busy last few weeks of the term, it’s sometimes easy to forget how big a role teachers can play in shaping the very towns they work in.  Sharing a hug with these students on stage, feeling the simple power of marking time by means of ritual, shuddering at the awesome responsibility I’d been entrusted with as a teacher and adviser for six years — all of it refreshed in me the feeling that public education is a worthy enterprise in the United States.  It’s amazing that all it took was staying a little late on a Friday evening and attending graduation to remember all this.  Graduation is a really good event, I think, for all teachers to attend. 

Even if you don’t plan to hug anyone.

Maybe I’ll go again next year.