I graduated from high school twenty years ago this week. Since then, I’ve attended nearly twenty additional graduation ceremonies. A few of these were for friends graduating from colleges. Far more were for the high school students I taught. I suppose I’m somewhat of a graduation veteran. During these two decades, I’ve pondered the relative impact of these ceremonies. While doing so, a curious trend has caught my attention. It might be altering their impact.
This month, students across the country will graduate from high school. Completing high school only happens once. It’s a stepping-stone for many, but a major event for others. For as much as I dismissed high school, I’ll admit feeling slightly overcome when I realized I’d reached the end. The actual ceremony resonated with a mixture of finality and new opportunity—like a commencement should. I was almost embarrassed by how much it affected me. I can understand how potent the feeling must be for those who genuinely struggled to earn their diplomas.
Or maybe I can’t. I fear the potency might get diluted for some students. June isn’t just for high school graduations any longer. Middle school graduations have become quite common. Many districts host elementary school and kindergarten graduations. By the time some students reach their senior year, they’ve had plenty of practice walking the aisle.
When I graduated, I hadn’t previously walked in any other ceremonies. I had one graduation. It came at the end of my public education. It was a coveted event symbolizing an educational culmination. Graduation wasn’t something routine I’d experienced at every interval of my schooling. The idea of graduating from anything other than high school or college hadn’t occurred to me prior to starting my teaching career.
I learned about these additional ceremonies when I started teaching in an urban school district. Their existence puzzled me. I reached a cynical conclusion about why they might exist. In particular, I applied this reason to the middle school ceremonies. The district in which I taught had a pitiful graduation rate. Almost half of the students dropped out. I figured the middle school ceremonies might have developed as a way to celebrate accomplishments before students quit. Less cynically, I thought they might serve as a way to emphasize the importance of schooling. The ceremonies would stress the significance of the transition from middle to high school. I was reaching for a reason.
My reasoning got upended when I found out suburban districts were holding similar ceremonies. These were schools without such significant dropout rates. Many held ceremonies at all junctures between buildings. Students generally don’t quit during middle school, so the ceremonies at younger grades probably served some other function. This didn’t mean urban schools didn’t hold them for the reasons I suspected, but it suggested other reasons must also be at play.
Further reasoning was nearly as cynical. I began to think the additional ceremonies were indulgences. They were at least as much for the parents as they were for the students. They were opportunities for parents to snap pictures. They were excuses for parents to buy little suits and dresses. Parents could see their kids in tiny caps and gowns. They could buy glossy portraits to display in their living rooms (I briefly suspected a cabal among school picture companies). Each additional ceremony was another reason for parents to gush over their little angels.
I’m not a parent, so I can’t relate. If parents feel the ceremonies are important, good for them. My family was content with a high school graduation. Everyone I know who is my age seems to have reached adulthood intact with only one ceremony. If students today need the extra recognition as a form of encouragement, then I guess they should have this. I’m not callous enough to say this is dismissible nonsense for a succession of self-centered and over-indulged generations, but I could see how one could argue as much.
The entire phenomenon confounds me. To begin, how had I missed its encroachment? I’d been out of high school a mere five years when I learned about these extra ceremonies. In that span of time, who had decided they were necessary? What had changed? I wasn’t certain if schools had started the trend by offering them, or if parents had pushed until they got them. Either way, by the time I found out about them, they were firmly entrenched in the culture of many schools.
The concerns I have about these ceremonies—especial those for middle school students—have not to do with indulging anyone. Schools indulge students and parents in much more profound ways. My concern is about assigning too much worth to the wrong achievements. I suppose the recognition of milestones is good. Finishing middle school is a milestone. However, is it an achievement worthy of a cap and gown ceremony? Should anyone be proud of someone who graduates from middle school? Shouldn’t this be more or less expected to happen? Could schools be reducing the perceived worth of high school graduation by making it one in a series of ceremonies rather than the point of public education? More practically, might middle school graduations be setting a precedent for students to expect to be rewarded for simply being present?
I’m probably over-thinking this and coming off like a delusional curmudgeon. I’ve already admitted my age in this piece, haven’t I? Perhaps I’m exaggerating how much importance is assigned to each ceremony (although apparently out-of-control parent behavior at graduation ceremonies has become a trending topic in recent weeks). I could think of additional cynical condemnations of these ceremonies. What I should do is recognize that kids now expect to be recognized more often and for less than when I was a student. Parents expect this recognition as well, and maybe more so. There’s a precedent, which is difficult to take back. I’m not certain taking it back would achieve much. The ceremonies might benefit all involved in some way I’m not seeing.
Let the students and parents have their ceremonies every three or four years (as if it this were up to me). Let students bask in the chance to feel good about themselves. Let parents watch their little angles through the screens on their phones. I think it’s weird, but what I think isn’t going to postpone anyone’s party.