Maybe Graduation Isn’t All About You

What if graduation rituals celebrate more than individual achievement?

My daughter wants nothing to do with her high school graduation: she doesn’t want to wear the cap and gown, she doesn’t want to take graduation pictures, and she definitely doesn’t want to participate in a ceremony. Luckily for her, the in-person ceremony was canceled, replaced by an online ceremony. Even so, she views it all as just so much empty ritual.

I can’t say I entirely disagree with her. I felt the same way about my own high school graduation back in…(erhum, cough, cough)…well, a long time ago. In my graduating class of more than 600 students, I was the only boy who didn’t wear a suit and tie for his yearbook picture.

Let’s face it, as rites of passage go, the typical Western graduation ceremony lacks a certain oomph, especially compared to the rites of passage practiced by some other cultures. Just for example, according to Global Citizen, boys on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu dive off a 98-foot tower with a vine tied around their ankles. Inuit boys (and these days, girls) on North Baffin Island go out into the wilderness with their fathers to hone their hunting skills and communicate with animal spirits. And boys in the Maasai tribes of Kenya and Tanzania spend an entire day singing, dancing, and consuming “a mixture of alcohol, cow’s blood, and milk” as well as “large portions of meat” in preparation for their circumcision the next day.

Meanwhile, we in the West don polyester robes and sit on hard folding chairs in hot gymnasiums for a couple hours, enduring lengthy homilies that gamely attempt to impart some transcendent meaning to the moment. This is generally done by invoking the sort of philosophical reflection that has been AWOL from the whole educational project up to that point. Not surprisingly, wisdom offered as an afterthought tends to come off as just another cheap decorative flourish, flimsy as crepe paper and empty as a mylar balloon.

So: I sympathize with my daughter’s reticence around the whole ritual. But my wife, a former college professor, is of an entirely different mind…meaning that we will be marking my daughter’s graduation with the dreaded polyester robe (even if it’s only worn at home), a lawn sign, and attendance at a virtual graduation ceremony featuring a long slideshow of kids we’ve never met. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that we’ll be seated on our couch rather than hard folding chairs.

I have found myself attempting to justify it all to my eye-rolling, long-suffering daughter.

Why?” she wants to know when I ask her to pose with her cap and gown for a photo. “Why go through the motions, when none of it matters to me?”

“Well,” I say, grasping for some rationale sturdy enough to win her grudging cooperation, “maybe it’s not all about you.”

She looks taken aback.

Yeah, I’m thinking. I could be onto something here. “Maybe these graduation rituals aren’t just about recognizing you; maybe they’re also about recognizing everyone who helped you grow into young adulthood.”

Maybe, I think later, graduation ceremonies are more than a celebration of individual accomplishments; maybe they also function as a chance for all of us to celebrate our own collective accomplishment: the education and formation of a civilized member of society. It’s no trivial achievement, because every graduating class represents one more year that society has managed to preserve, and perhaps strengthen, the fragile fabric of civilized life. We often laud education for its power to liberate and empower individuals, but it is no less valuable for its power to stave off ignorance and anarchy, those twin wolves constantly prowling at civilization’s gates.

We often laud education for its power to liberate and empower individuals, but it is no less valuable for its power to stave off ignorance and anarchy, those twin wolves constantly prowling at civilization’s gates.

When I propose graduation as a communal celebration, the community I have in mind is not only the classroom teachers who take primary, hands-on responsibility for the education of our children, but also a supporting cast of hundreds, thousands — or even millions, depending on how wide you want to cast the net.

By my own back-of-a-napkin count, for example, my daughter has had no fewer than sixty teachers in the fifteen years between preschool and her senior year of high school. Throwing in the counselors, interventionists, school librarians, aids, and other peripheral educational professionals who had direct contact with her probably brings the total closer to 90. And none of them could do their jobs without the help of support staff — everyone from janitors to lunch ladies to school administrators. At this point, I lose count.

But the education and formation of a child doesn’t happen only, or even primarily, through the formal education system. As I look at my daughter today and think about all the people who played a significant role in making her the admirable young adult she is today, I think first and foremost of — well, this is a little embarrassing, but me. Me and my wife, because parents may be the single most significant individuals in the educational attainment and human development of their children. I also think of the wider network of adults who actively nurtured her over the years: our adult friends; the parents of her friends when she was hanging out with their families; our extended family (especially her grandparents, aunts, and uncles); neighbors; church leaders and Sunday school teachers; camp counselors; coaches and swimming instructors; children’s librarians; her doctors and nurses…. All of these (and undoubtedly many more that I’ve forgotten) are worth remembering and even celebrating.

And if you’ll indulge me enlarging the circle one more time, let’s not forget the millions of voters and taxpayers who chose to prioritize the education of our children, and then paid for it. Here in Minnesota, we spend about $12,000 per student annually (close to the national average), which by my rough calculation adds up to more than $150,000 over the entire course of my daughter’s education. (The true cost is probably considerably higher than that.) Nationally, Americans spent about $706 billion on elementary and secondary education in the 2015–2016 school year — more than thirty times NASA’s annual budget.

Cast in the light of all that generosity, these graduation rituals suddenly take on a new significance — at least for me. Now they’re not just a celebration of my daughter’s accomplishment, as real and worth marking as that is; now, they’re also a way of publicly saying “thank you” to the small army of caring people who made that accomplishment possible. They’re a way of celebrating not just her, but us — all of us coming together to work for the good future of our children.

Will this argument convince my daughter? I don’t know; the jury is still out. But in a few days, our family will dutifully gather on the living room couch and cheer when my daughter’s photos flash across the screen during her school’s live-streamed graduation; and we’ll cheer for all the other students, too, and then we might go out to the drive-in hamburger joint down the street to celebrate with ice cream cones. We’ll raise a root beer and toast my daughter, and then we’ll toast all her teachers, paid and unpaid.

And who knows? We might even convince her to wear her cap and gown.

This essay first appeared in The Faculty.

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