First Person: Graduation saturation

What I learned at a kindergarten 'commencement ceremony'

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Remember when you finished a grade in school, got your report card and were simply wished a good summer? You got a smile, a pat on the back and a "see ya next year." And that was it. Because everyone knew that only a year had passed, that another year was coming soon and that you'd just done what you were supposed to do anyway. Finishing a grade was reason to rejoice -- hello, summer vacation! -- but not an occasion to celebrate, because you still had a lot more grades ahead of you, and because everyone with straight Ds on their report cards did, too.

   

Chad Hermann, who blogs at "Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman." and The Huffington Post, teaches management communication at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business (chad@andrew.cmu.edu).

   

But now, at every possible turn, and at the end of every conceivable grade, we have to have a graduation ceremony or a commencement ceremony or, if the school has at least some sense of restraint, a promotion ceremony.

We convene parents and family and friends -- and provide caps and gowns and tassels -- for kids who've completed pre-school or nursery school or kindergarten, for children who've finished fourth or fifth or sixth grade, for students simply advancing to elementary or middle or high school.

It's no wonder our children are so jaded by the time they get to high school; for some, freshman year is the first time in their lives that everyone they know hasn't been invited to their school's auditorium (or gymnasium, or cafetorium) to scream and hoot and holler for a simple rite of passage that used to be honored with a high five, one last bus ride and maybe a few extra minutes added to your bedtime.

The practice is as sad as it is silly. And, I suppose, in a 21st century hell-bent on elevating the innocuous, as silly as it is inevitable.

It was all three when my wife and I watched 56 children conclude a year of kindergarten at a local elementary school -- 180 days of work and play capped off by 50 minutes of pomp and circumstance. It was an assembly, a reception, a promotion ceremony all rolled into one, an extravaganza staged, like most dog-and-pony-shows masquerading as children's school assemblies, solely for the benefit of immature, impatient adults who can't or don't want to wait to celebrate until their children actually accomplish something.

We took our seats near the back of the room and resolved to endure it all: two speeches, three songs, a couple of readings, a parade of rainbow-decorated diplomas on stage, a Hallmark shop's worth of cards and balloons (my favorite: "Congratulations, Grad!" a word the kid can't read followed by a word the kid won't be for another 12 years) and flowers and gifts in the audience, more flash photography than a royal family wedding and an orange-drink-and-cookie stampede at the end.

It was nice and sweet and, as these things go, reasonably restrained. Best of all, it was mercifully brief.

The principal, a kind woman who seemed to find far more joy in her job than most of her peers, kept her remarks short and appropriate. She talked about the value of learning, she praised the children for their hard work, and she read a little Robert Fulghum (including my favorite line: "Be aware of wonder"). One teacher spoke briefly about her class, laughed and smiled a lot and got right to the business of handing out the diploma packets, the stuffed animals and the Barnes & Noble gift cards. (In what may have been the high point of the day, the children seemed more excited by the cards than the toys; there is, perhaps, hope for a literate future yet.)

The other teacher, a woman obviously born to teach German, spoke longer than the first two women combined, told us nothing we didn't already know and proved what we'd all already suspected: that her favorite vowel is I.

In the end, every child got a name call, a handshake from the principal and a round of applause from the audience. Which was, considering the alternatives, not especially excessive. And, truth be told, maybe even mildly enjoyable.


But only because the kids, who at 6 are still young and innocent enough to find joy in most everything they do, had so obviously found fresh and fulfilling joy in the simple pleasures of a kindergarten classroom. They found adventures in word problems and book reports and homework folders, in small desks and big lockers and tiny, hard-to-open milk cartons in a loud and crowded cafeteria.

They came with wonder and willingness to a place most of us could not wait to leave and, finding delights we'd forgotten or forsaken, where they would be more than happy to stay. They carried their joy into their songs and their smiles and their laughter, redeeming a ceremony that meant far less -- and so, in a way, much more -- to them than to their parents.

The adults wanted to take pictures and give presents and obsessively capture the moment; the kids just wanted to talk to their friends, eat some cookies and get ready to go home. In their genuine happiness for the day, and in their admirable indifference to the event, they taught us all a lesson in the little things.

They seemed to understand, better than almost all of the adults in the room, that these sorts of moments and days and years are just beginning, that the end of kindergarten is only the start of first grade, and that, no matter how much their parents or teachers or principals may try to hurry them, they will learn and grow and enjoy each day, but always in their own sweet time.



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