educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Graduation blahs

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I’ve never been into graduations. I am happy for the graduates who themselves are happy, and I like to see proud families, but the event itself never grabbed me. And now graduation fever has taken hold. Kids get a rite of passage ceremony for all kinds of things. We have kindergarten graduations and even pre-school graduations. School systems with multiple tiers have students who “graduate” from middle school or fifth grade.

I’m sorry if this is coming off as curmudgeonly (perhaps I’m just following my idiom…). Indeed, many graduations are lovely affairs, “commencements” marking the beginning of students’ lives, and graduations for little kids are cute. I also know that many schools put a lot of time and effort into making graduation an important and memorable event.

I grant the formal recognition of an educational end point. Human beings like and often need ceremony, a mark of closure. Graduation, even though usually packaged as “commencement,” as beginning, serves that purposes. The ceremony itself is what is important (especially since often the little scroll case they hand you is empty and the actual diploma will arrive by mail weeks later).

Also, my stance might appear callous and privileged, since I do know it can be stunning to learn how many people never finish their educational journeys. According to The Atlantic, high school graduation rates are soaring at near 75% — way better than it used to be. So for many, graduation is momentous: Those families with a first-generation grad or those in situations in which significant challenges were overcome to get by.

So for those well-meaning folks and reasons, don’t let me be a wispy, sad little privileged cloud.  It’s just that for me, I’ve never been one much for graduation, and now, I wonder if our overzealousness with graduations waters down the really important markers of educational passage. Kids expect a big party because they’re going to high school or college. They want a gift, sometimes a major one. They want everyone all proud because they’re — whee! — going into sixth grade.

Sorry Warnock kids, but I expect you to graduate kindergarten and 8th grade, much as I expect you to graduate high school. If you choose to attend college, I won’t feel all triumphant and wiggly if you graduate from there either. Now, if you slog through an advanced degree or tough professional certification, that may bring parental bliss on my part when you get your piece of paper.

Maybe this is just my own twisted frame, and I should change it. But I look back on my own graduations. Even though I was one of the first in my family to receive a college degree, it wasn’t much of a big day. High school was less. In fact, I realize that other than my last degree, the doctorate from Temple, I never thought about not finishing, and I was lucky, fortunate, and hard-working enough (and when I was younger, just hard-working enough) to complete the course. I don’t think this was hubris on my part, at all, since I didn’t start to accelerate my scholarly persona until college, just that I wasn’t surprised with the progress. I also think it has something to do with my belief in finding value in the journey more than the destination.

But all those lofty contemplations aside, I suppose I wonder if graduations are another emblem of our time of over-recognizing youthful accomplishments, and I worry that if we celebrate every marker, we’re adding diplomas to their walls much the way we’ve added trophies to their bookshelves: Lots of bling for minor, and perhaps quite reasonable, accomplishments.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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4 Responses to “Graduation blahs”

  1. I feel exactly the same way. My daughter just “graduated” 5th grade. The school and most of her friends and their parents made a big deal about it with celebrations and big parties! My daughter asked me what I was going to give her (or do for her) for her “graduation”. I told her she could continue to live in our house and we would provide for her as usual. I told her the alternative (not graduating) was not acceptable and this was not a big deal. It was expected of her. (I wasn’t totally mean about it though, I let her pick out new shoes and a dress for the ceremony at school and I told her I was proud of her for making the Honor Roll). I feel like kids don’t really work for anything anymore. It’s so sad. My kids think I’m mean. I think I’m giving them the chance to not suck when the grow up!

  2. Thank you! Children and adults should not be rewarded for doing the expected and necessary parts of life. Too many employers are out there bemoaning the fact that their young employees are expecting to be praised (and paid) for just showing up and doing the minimum.

  3. Here, here!! (what the heck does that mean anyway?)
    As you know, the JimQuinn/JoeCreighton era of baseball eliminated “participation trophies” beyond Tee Ball. Certainly the fact that kids could or would show up “game” after “game” in tee ball WAS worth celebrating. THAT is an accomplishment.
    I agree wholeheartedly with your view on this one. Far too many celebrations of events that are expected. As we far too often said to complaining parents, “you don’t get a trophy for showing up to work every day” – that’s not life.
    Keep up the good work sir.

  4. Well put. But, I’m tempted to argue this:
    “If you choose to attend college, I won’t feel all triumphant and wiggly if you graduate from there either.”

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs about the definitions/connotations of “triumphant” and “wiggly,” but I can’t help but feel that, while maybe not bumping side to side in your uncomfortable chair — nor standing on the chair and flexing, shouting “my kid rules!” — you’ll justifiably have some proud, happy feeling welling up. After all, the “big” graduations do signify periods of change and growth.

    Or, maybe not. I can understand how the proud, happy feeling would be conditioned out of a parent who sits through 85 “graduations” in the first 14 years of his/her child’s life.

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