On Graduation Ceremonies

My principal said something a few days ago that I’ve been thinking of ever since. I was at my class’ graduation rehearsal. We had been corralled and marched into the field house and had sat through some faculty member talking about how the ceremony was supposed to proceed when my principal grabbed the microphone. He wanted to talk about the “importance” of the graduation ceremony.

What he said is the only quote I can remember directly from him. He said, “This is not about you.” He proceeded to talk about how some people were going to be the first in their families to graduate high school. But he made no real effort to connect that fact with his statement. He wasn’t looking at anyone in particular. He didn’t point to anyone in the crowd. He didn’t name names. He said, simply, to all of us, on the cusp of graduating high school and moving on with our lives, “This is not about you.”

As he moved on to some other topics, I realized that he wasn’t wrong when he said that. He really was right. The graduation ceremony isn’t about me, or anyone in particular, not even those students graduating for the first time in their families. And everything that goes into the ceremony points directly to that.

Here’s how the graduation ceremony will go down. It begins with the class being divided into houses and led in. A few token students have been selected to be “marshals,” with the sole job of being asked to lead the houses in and put students in their seats. We go to our seats and remain standing for the national anthem, then we all are directed to sit down at the same exact time. Then come the speeches. The mayor, the superintendent, someone from the board of aldermen, someone from the school department, the principal, then someone from our class, then our class president who presents the class gift. Most get roughly three minutes to speak. Then we get our names called. Two rows of students line up on the side of the stage, then get called name by name. They walk up with their undecorated cap and gown, grab their diploma, shake hands, walk off stage, get their photograph taken, then sit back down. They wait until everyone’s done, then the principal pronounces us as graduated, then we leave in neat lines. Ceremony over, high school over, summer officially started.

This all sounds fine and dainty until you really break things down. Every step of the way, individuality is crushed. We are led into the field house by house and told to sit down all together. We are led up to get our diplomas in rows. We all have to have the same cap and gown because there are no decorations, and we have to wait until everyone has graduated before we can do anything different. The only place where individuality is kept is in our receiving a diploma, in which we all have to walk the same walk, shake the same hands, and say the same things, that being nothing. The only place where we get any say in the matter is in how our names are pronounced.

Then there are those speeches. Each speech will be different linguistically, but the message at its heart will be the same: do something with your life. Embrace things. Explore. Be great. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Each speech will act as though it’s saying something grand and profound, when in reality it’s saying the same trite messages that have been given in every speech since the dawn of time. Each speech will be given with a smile and have some joke lying in its midst, and each speech will end with a thunderous roar of applause. Each speech, ultimately, will slide in front of the crowd’s eyes, do its song and dance for its short duration, then disappear forever, only to be regurgitated in the very near future. The senior gift is just an extension of the same. It’s a small act that doesn’t do all that much, a token that provides a few seconds of warmth after four years of valuable development and connections. It extends some idea of generosity, then, too, disappears, only to be reinstated the very next year.

This is the graduation ceremony. A celebration of vague, already stated ideas, decided to provide a few glittery moments. It really isn’t about us at all. It’s about us, the class of 2016, as a collective unit, maybe. I don’t know what can be done to improve the ceremony itself. Personally, I would prefer something entirely different. I would prefer walking down a hallway in my sweatpants and Merrells, meeting my principal who is standing in a closet, being handed my diploma, wished good luck, and left to walk out the building. That isn’t all that individualistic, either, but at least it doesn’t presume itself as being anything other than what it is. And, hey, maybe that’s just good enough.

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