I just came from our school’s graduation ceremony for 2014. I only cried twice, which is very good for me. I never used to be a crier, but I’m quite happily developing a certain aptitude for leaking tears. I don’t really have time right now to be writing, but I wanted to get some thoughts down before the moment is gone. As soon as the thoughts are down I’ll be cleaning my house and prepping the yard for the deck party which follows the Grand March tonight. It’s part of the tradition: grad ceremony in the morning at the local Arts Center, the afternoon is spent doing what needs to be done (family celebrations and photo sessions and hair appointments for grads; marking and report cards for staff; house and yard cleanup for me); the Grand March begins this evening at 7:00; and after all is cleaned up and the grads are on their way to their own celebrations school staff meet on my deck for some reflection time together. It’s awesome. I hope it doesn’t rain!
My school, if you haven’t been following The Book Bowery, is an awesome place. It’s busy. And personal. We care, quite deeply, about each student in our building. We like them. Not every day, actually, that might be a stretch. But in the long run, we genuinely like them. Their last year, their grade twelve year, is particularly intense. It’s our last chance to groom and tend and direct and prop them up against the world. We go at them like chickens at a corn pile! So to see them sitting there all polished and golden-like, in caps and gowns, grinning or crying or whatever they’re doing – it’s moving. I haven’t stopped smiling. A couple of them stand out to me as worth mentioning to you.
J – Dear J. She came to us in grade nine an incredibly shy student. Painful. She smiled. And when she wrote she really shone. She had potential. Her contributions, when she was bold enough to make them, were brilliant. Here was a girl with something special. Unfortunately, she rarely showed up. Rarely. Two or three times a month she’d pop by, courageously wanting to be there. Sometimes she stayed longer – a few days, maybe a week. And then she’d sink back into her ‘other’ world, disappear for a bit. Her name, though, never left – it was tucked away in the back of my mind. J. Where are you J? Somehow she collected a credit here or there. Maybe do some extra work at home and drop it off, before the day began. Eventually she learned how to stay for longer stretches, pulling off a month or two. By grade 12 she was here. Solidly. I think in this last year of school she was there almost every day. And after school. She DJ’d our dances. She performed at our Arts Nights. She sang, and strummed guitar, and created art, and developed an academic persona. And a reputation for smiling, appreciating people, being genuine. Today she walked across the stage, collected a few awards and scholarships on her way by, and received her grade twelve diploma. I got to present her with the award for ‘most improved student overall’ – I wanted to hug her! We whispered a few words back and forth on the stage while flashes indicated her family’s pride – I told her she should be so proud. She, still smiling widely, assured me she really really was. Awesome. She’s going on to a prestigious art school on the west coast. Last week she was cleaning out her art portfolio and gifted me with one of her pieces. I’m going to keep it. It’s signed and it’s an original. It’ll be worth something to other people one day, but it’s worth quite a bit to me already.
A – A walked into my grade nine English Language Arts class and began her mothering career. She nurtured every one in the room, and took care of their details, and eagerly, by sheer force of her own will, thrust the entire room full of little adolescents, into a good space. In the past four years she has written more words than Stephen King – projects, and revisions, and journals, and letters, and speeches, and essays, and stories. A fierce little whirlwind of charisma and determination she has practically blown her classmates across the stage with her. Her first public performance: did she write her own poem or use someone’s? I can’t remember. I think it was her own. She spoke it so quickly and with such passion that although I couldn’t understand a single word of it I was moved to tears just by the storm in her eyes behind it. Last year, at another performance in front of a larger audience, she surprised me – didn’t come for advice; didn’t ask for coaching. There she was – so much improved! Slower, coherent, studied. Afterwards she came for feedback – I, of course, beamed, and she beamed back and clapped her hands for joy. But this year – oh my. This year she is a polished personality on the stage. She creates art, and performs it to make a solid point – messages with a purpose; presentation with practised gestures that appear natural – but I know better – each intonation is intentional – she is going for an effect. She was valedictorian this morning. She made me cry.
Another A – a whole different kind of girl. A, who, when I asked her at the beginning of this year to articulate her personal goals for her own learning in English Language Arts, replied in writing that she thought she might take up dance. Her boyfriend likes dancing and she could really improve their relationship if she could keep up with him on the dance floor. And, she wrote, she should get some new friends. It’s important, she explained, to keep old friends, but new friends are sort of fun. “A, these are great goals. What do they have to do with English Language Arts?” “OH!! Mrs. G! I was supposed to talk about ELA?” Yes, A. Yes. Brown eyes so dark her pupils disappear. Hair, the pitchest black, always curling in tendrils past her round cheeks. A gentle demeanor, A’s greatest excitement this last year has been when she thought she was pregnant because “babies are so sweet, aren’t they?” *sigh* Her class with me began this semester at 8:55, but A would breeze in around 9:30, sit at the back and pull out her rhinestone studded cell phone to begin texting all her people, letting them know she made it to class safely. She’d lean her face upon her manicured hands and dream of I don’t know what – probably her man (himself a former grad, currently in an apprenticeship program for electrical. He made a point a few months back to drop by and tell me how well he’s doing. I hugged him. So proud of him!). A is in a modified program – she needs a little extra support. She has frustrated the bejeebers out of several of us staff members because although she has always wanted very badly to graduate she hasn’t really ever made the connection between wishing for a goal, and actually working towards that goal. In A’s happy world merely apologizing, meaning well, expressing excellent intentions and promising to do better is all it takes to patch up a problem. Voila! Problem solved!! A made and missed appointments; A did not hand in work; A knocked on my door at the most inconvenient times interrupting classes to ask if I had just a minute to answer a few of her questions – questions that were answered that morning in class while she was sleeping in. But A is sweet. She is kind. Her heart is made of pure goodness. She is a quality person who will make the most loving mother and most devoted wife and most generous neighbour. She will be good to everyone she meets.
After the ceremony, during the luncheon, another staff member commented to me that A’s diploma is really a mockery of everything that diplomas stand for. He is right. When the business community looks at A’s resume and sees she has a grade twelve diploma they will expect a certain level of competency. And they are right. It is a professional commitment to quality and integrity to keep a high standard for those diplomas. All year long this is my focus: trying to maintain a meaning to graduation – that it is something earned – something worth celebrating because it is earned. When I am pulling my hair out because a student thinks some cruddy bit of scrawl is going to get them a passing mark, and I am personally staying late after school is long dismissed (the janitors all know to clean my room last because I’ll be there past supper time) because I need to revise an assignment so someone can have another try at it; when I am meeting with students and their parents, making arrangements to have individualized units and programs suited to students’ personal needs – all the while I am thinking, “Is this quality? Is this meaningful? Is this, what I am doing right now for this student, properly preparing them to take up a significant role in the community where they will live? Is this stretching their potential appropriately without crushing their spirits?” And when students are crying (tears are not uncommon for me or for them!) or when they are complaining to the mentors (one mentor in particular has heard a lot of grievous complaints about me – “She can see right into your soul! Is she allowed to do that??”) all the while I am wondering if it’s worth it. Because if they become better people, it’s worth it. If they learn they can do more than they thought they could, then it’s worth it. A few tears and angry words and frustrated complaints mean nothing to me if, in the end, they can hold their heads up high and proudly say they earned that grade twelve diploma!
But for A, sweet A, what does that diploma mean to her? She will never ever be prominent in business or politics. No career in medicine or law awaits her. She will not successfully run her own, or anyone else’s, business. She is not equipped to write in to the local paper to express concerns about her community. What has her high school education done for her?
She wore that cap with pride, adjusting its tassle with her shiny, lacquered nails. While waiting in line to make her entrance onto the stage she turned to me, eyes wide and perfectly made up, “How do I look, Mrs. G?” “A! You are beautiful.” She looked down at the floor before peeking up at me again, “Good.” Because she is beautiful. And that’s enough for her. She sat at the back of the stage behind all the other graduates, quietly watching the others receive their awards and scholarships. Her hands were gently, graciously, folded in her lap while the speeches were being made. When the dignitaries took the podium she waited, mind likely wandering. Her moment was coming; she was confident. At the end of the ceremony, when it was time for the traditional throwing of the caps, the vice principal challenged the class to bust out a few dance moves. She pulled ahead from the back where she was anonymous and she lifted her gown up to her knees. Surging forward, her feet started clacking, joints all akimbo – her face shone! She pulled far in front, right up to the edge of the stage where the members of the audience could get a look at her dimples, and she danced. She ‘yeehawed’! She waved at her family. The grads were all throwing their caps and whooping it up, but A took center stage and her family catcalled and hollered and she grinned and swallowed up the spotlight.
Maybe that diploma isn’t all about academic achievement for everyone. There is no way A can even begin to contend with her peers in the academic arena.
Afterwards, she came to me during the luncheon, and lightly touched my hand. “Will you come meet my family?” I agreed. Of course! And she rounded up other staff members, pulling us all to her family. None of us had met them. Each member of the family – two parents and six siblings – each swallowed their mouthfuls of cheese and pickles, put their bunwiches down, stood up to meet the teachers. A’s father, rumpled brown suit with its shoulders sloping down off his bones, reached out his hand. She has his eyes – same deepness of brown, crinkles at the edges. He has a firm handshake while A has her mother’s handshake – tender, tentative. The sisters all smiled as I tried to get their relationships straight, while the sole brother stood behind me, camera in hand, snapping shots. A very proud family. Proud of A in her very proud moment.
I’m reminded of the ol’ Grinch. Maybe Grad is not about what’s in the diploma, all wrapped up in its nice packaging. Maybe Grad is not so much about rewarding people for what they have done – been good or bad, naughty or nice – ….. maybe Grad is about cherishing people for who they are becoming – maybe kindness and natural goodness, and just being so darn proud, maybe these are qualities that make for contributing, significant members of communities. I thought A was going to bust her buttons, but you should have seen each member of her family – how they beamed when they looked at her. It was a family celebration, a family honour – A was graduating. This may have been a milestone they didn’t know they could make but they, as a unit, overtook it and conquered it and can now lay claim to it. It built them all up a little bit. It changed their identity. They are now the kind of family who has children who graduate.
This morning’s graduation ceremony was lovely. I wish I could share each student’s story with you: B – who hung his head last week, saying he is going to come back to upgrade because he wants to end strong and proud – he’s had a run of rough choices this semester; S&K – two of the most shy girls ever, so discouraged, trying hard to keep going in spite of their struggles with depression; J&M – who just had a baby together – cutest baby ever – and they’ve never been such serious students – that child shifted their focus like nothing we tried even came close to doing! Yes. Each of them is a lovely story – a heartwarming story – a human story. I wish you could meet them all.
But you haven’t time. Neither have I. I have to clean my house and tidy my yard for tonight’s “Grad Reflection” (read: deck party) with my staff. But next time you attend someone’s grad – maybe your sister’s, or son’s, or neighbour’s uncle’s – look at all the faces peering out from under those caps. Imagine the stories each of them has. Reflect on what it means to graduate for each of them. It’s a big day. I’m not sure we can really know what that cap and diploma mean for some.