This is What We Do
For me, one of the best parts of teaching high school is attending graduation each year. This is what we do: take a student who was an eighth grader a few months before we meet, who may be thirteen or fourteen years old, and spend the next four years preparing this student for adulthood and college. When it’s time to walk in commencement exercises, the transformation is a joy to witness. So for today, I set aside the budget and economy, the testing craze, and all the other concerns about public education, to focus only on the good.
I usually arrive at graduation an hour before it begins. The seats are mostly empty but the early arrivals are coming in. Students look a bit nervous, perhaps because they’re guiding anxious relatives to the best available seats, or maybe because those high heels feel a bit unstable. Soon enough friends and family are settling into seats, and students retreat to an area to gather before marching into the ceremony. Behind the scenes, they’re starting to loosen up, all smiles as they start taking pictures, fixing mortarboards and tassels, and calling and texting left and right as they prepare for their big entrance. Some of those mortarboards have been decorated to add to the festive mood. There are colorful designs, messages of gratitude, and names and logos from universities around the country. Can this six-foot tall, Ivy League-bound graduate be the same student who came into our school only four years ago still a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? And the sophisticated young adult guiding her proud family to their seats before joining her classmates was not long ago a troubled young girl; there were more than a few meetings that ended with doubts about whether or not she would make it through high school. She’s turned herself around and will enter the California State University system in the fall.
Then, as the traditional sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” fill the air, students march into the ceremony, and parents, siblings and friends strain for a glimpse of their loved one, or reach up and around others to snap that picture of the graduate walking to the front. There are smiles and cheers all around, shouts and two-armed waving to catch someone’s attention. Speeches and performances follow, usually quite good, but I always wonder if anyone in the audience can give their full attention at a time like this. The emotions run deep for the graduates and their families as they all pass together through this milestone moment. There are firsts and lasts – the oldest or youngest children in the family, the new immigrants. There are memories crowding the moment – close calls, lost loved ones. As a teacher, I rarely experience that depth of emotion, but I look around the crowd and know what’s out there; I observe hundreds of students and families and recognize the collective experience, feel its weight, and feel also a lightness in the day that buoys everyone’s spirits as well.
The reading of each graduate’s name is a portion of the ceremony I usually pass in conversation. Since most of the teachers at my school do not sit on stage or participate directly in the ceremony, we’re hovering around the edges, helping out, but also free to mix and mingle on the fringes of the event. It takes almost an hour to read all the names, but in that time, I usually find former students and former colleagues somewhere in the area, and have a chance to catch up, share stories, and reflect on the journey that we’re all on. If it was a bit of a time-warp to see the former eighth-grader preparing to walk the stage and head off to college, it’s even more of a trip to see the former student return for a sibling’s graduation and find out that she’s about to enter medical school, or learn that he now wants to be a teacher.
Eventually, when everyone has already wondered aloud several times when it might end, the last name is announced from the stage, and in a moment that I think should give everyone chills, the graduates let out a loud cheer and fling their mortarboards into the air. The orderly event dissolves into a crowded sea of people searching for each other, aided now of course by cell phones and text messages. (It can only be a matter of time until we all find each other by a combination of GPS and homing devices in our cell phones). Pictures, pictures, and more pictures follow, and at this point I usually wander through the crowd, shaking hands and exchanging awkward hugs with young adults who don’t usually hug teachers. So often, parents will extend a hand and offer enthusiastic gratitude. In those situations, I accept the thanks graciously, and I often respond, “Thank you for entrusting us with your child,” or, “Thank you for helping us and encouraging us.” But in most cases, their thanks are not really mine to accept, at least not for myself alone. It’s a general type of thanks. It’s not the job that I did helping this student through ninth grade English that the parents are recalling in any detail. If they’re offering gratitude, it’s because they know that I contributed to an experience, and played a small part on a team that made all the difference.
To be honest, even at graduation, there are some students and teachers who look the other way, too. While some students and parents will tell me how wonderful our experience was, there are others for whom I was not that wonderful teacher. It shouldn’t matter on graduation day, but the negative experiences are not easily forgotten. High schools are huge families, full of incredibly complex relationships and intense feelings, playing out over four years of profound change in the lives of students and their families. Over the course of four years, a whole variety of stories play out, thousands of variations on a dozen themes. We celebrate the success, and the sting of failure fades, but it doesn’t disappear.
Nonetheless, on graduation day, I always head home appreciative of my school and my colleagues, my community, and our students. I’m proud to work in a profession that offers this opportunity to educate young people, to see them through great changes and help send them on their way in life, to welcome them into the rest of their lives as adults, as my peers. This is what we do.