I have been thinking about graduations lately (it seems the thing to do at this time of year.)—and about the graduations I have been to—probably more than the average person since I was required by the powers that were to attend the graduations at the high school where I taught for 32 years. I think I missed one, somehow, and I don’t recall why. If I have counted correctly, I have been to forty high school graduations (including my own and our daughters’), two college ceremonies, two graduate school, two seminary and one kindergarten. That’s 47 graduations, which ain’t too bad if you’re counting.
The worst ceremony was, surprisingly, one of the seminary ceremonies. You’d think they would have known better. It lasted three hours (we left after two and a half), and we had to stand in spite of having tickets. The speaker was Justice Brennan, who went on for 45 minutes. I had ninth graders who would have made a better speech. You’d think that a Supreme Court Justice would have more significant things to say than the rambling incoherence that Justice Brennan favored all of us with. It was worse than the infamous Rubber Chicken graduation at Robinson High in about 1988. That alleged ceremony saw a rubber chicken flung bout by the seniors for the better part of the evening, along with the obligatory beach balls and silly string. There was also an inflatable woman who surfaced briefly, but she was larger and easier to snag than the chicken.
After about twenty high school graduations, I realized that there are conflicting expectations present at a ceremony. The seniors look on it as sort of a warmup to heavy duty partying. The teachers present expect the same degree of decorum with 600 plus seniors in a heightened state of excitement that they have with a class of 25 first-semester sophomores after lunch. Parents and grandparents are mildly confused by so many 17- and 18-year-olds in one place. Administrators are happy if no one is trampled or killed and eaten during the proceedings.
I also have a tie for the best graduation ceremony. One was Alyssa’s kindergarten graduation—the high school class of 1999 was 12 strong, wearing construction paper mortarboards they had made themselves. The director read “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which then was circulating in Xeroxed copies, not printed on everything from coffee cups to diapers as it is now. Each graduate of the kindergarten received a certificate and a hug from the director and their teacher, and we all had juice and cookies sitting at tiny tables in little chairs. It was absolutely charming.
My other favorite ceremony was my graduation from elementary school, which then extended into seventh grade, a concept which makes me blanche how. We had a cool teacher, the only man in the school, who later became my first principal when I started teaching. He divided our school day into periods and we set up a giant HO train set in the room the week before Christmas vacation. In the spring, we went outside and played softball for hours.
Naturally, in the waning days of our seventh grade careers, we became thoroughly obnoxious. At least I did. I recognize the phenomenon now as short-timer’s syndrome, a psychological defense mechanism against the uncertainty of leaving what is familiar. But, as far as we were concerned, we were headed to eighth grade, intermediate school, and we were far too cool for words.
Our school chose to honor us with a graduation during the day. My mother was less then impressed.
“Graduation is for high school,” she opined.
“Now it’s for elementary school,” I returned.
“You should save some things for later,” she said.
“Geez, Mom, it’s only a ceremony. It’s not like I’m taking up drinking and smoking or anything like that.”
She fixed me with a familiar gaze. “Boys who drink and smoke…”
“Let me guess, Mom—they go to hell, right?”
I was clearly ready to graduate from elementary school.
My mother did not come to the ceremony as a protest. It was the only school event I was involved in that she did not attend. There wasn’t much to it—Miss Brown, our principal, said a few things about striving and making our school proud of us; Mrs. Woolworth played the piano; we marched across the stage and got our certificates. And that was it. No refreshment, no reception, nothing. I think that, for a change, the school didn’t know what to do with us. So they sent us to recess for the rest of the day—for two hours.
My best friend Mike and I had given up on organized sports by that time—it was too hot to stand around in the sun and play softball, so we stood in the shadow of the building and made witty comments about the kids on the playground.
“Look how little those kids are, Mike,” I said.
“Yeah, and look at those stupid games.”
“That’s right, no more stupid games for us. Soon we’ll be bush pilots.” We were convinced that the eighth grade consisted of a bush piloting curriculum we had been eagerly awaiting. This was in spite of being signed up for English, math, science, shop/music/art, p.e. and French. I suppose we thought these were code terms for aeronautics and navigation.
We stood there, glad just to contribute our superior presence to the school. As I looked out across the playground, I felt—nothing. Well, maybe a small pang at the prospect of not being sure that the lovely Leigh Stone, the woman of my dreams, would be in any of my classes the next year. Not that I would admit that to Mike.
I searched for something to say to convey the sense of superiority that we felt.
For a moment, I didn’t recognize the voice. It was distinctive, certainly, and vaguely familiar. I just wasn’t expecting it. I rarely saw our neighbor, Little Georgie, at school, and in six years, he hadn’t spoken to me on school grounds.
Georgie was, well, different. He was called “slow” back then. I don’t know what his condition was, but he had a hard time of it. For the most part, kids ignored him, and a few tortured the poor boy. He best known for falling into the mill race during the big fourth grade field trip to Washington’s Grist Mill a few years before. We called him “little” although he was anything but that.
I wasn’t sure exactly which grade Georgie was in then. He started in the same grade that I was in and kept up for a few years. Then he slipped behind, stuck in the fourth grade for several years. I suppose he was a pioneer in what we now call an ungraded curriculum.
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said, “Georgie, we are lordly seventh graders, masters of all we survey.”
Uh oh—he was in one of his “stuck” modes in which he repeated the same question dozens of times. I knew this, but kept after it anyhow.
“Because, Georgie, we are graduates of Westmore Elementary School.”
“Because, Georgie, that is what you do after you’ve learned everything there is to know.”
Mike sidled off to the basketball court. I think Georgie made him uncomfortable. Or maybe it was my trying to have a conversation with him.
I was stumped. I had not more explanations. Then it occurred to me that Georgie would never graduate from anywhere.
“Georgie,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“OK,” he mumbled. “I won’t…” And he shuffled off.
He never did graduate from elementary school, dropping out in the fifth grade after repeating it a couple of times. I heard he joined a motorcycle gang at age 14.
So, maybe there are some reasons some of us go to more than our share of graduations. It might be that we are making up for those who never had a graduation.
Alyssa brought home a notice of graduation when she was nearly finished with sixth grade. She had been quizzing Amy about life in junior high school—classic questions about being lost and being stuffed into lockers and being forced to eat unrecognizable food. She was in the high school advisory group at church. I sent the youth choir director a sympathy card since she was all his the next fall.
I asked her if she wanted me to come to her graduation since it was during school. “I can take off,” I said.
“It’s only creative writing, not a real subject.”
“Oh, don’t bother,” she sniffed. “It will be so lame.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Oh,” she sighed, “Mrs. Jackson will get up and make some speech about doing our best and making Weems proud of us and the music teacher will play something dorky on the piano that I could play with one hand and then we have to stand up and sing the stupid school song…”
“The one you changed the words to?” There was the official version and the sixth-grade version, which has deliciously devastating comments about the school and the staff. I suppose I shouldn’t have laughed at it.
“Yeah, and we’re going to sing the bad words.” This from a child who walked around the house singing the Barney song as “I love you/You love me/That’s how we get H.I.V…”
“Wish I could be there…”
“Don’t bother. Elementary school is for losers.”
Some things never change, I suppose. Just the times and the ages. “I suppose it is, Alyssa,” I said. “I suppose it is.”