Saturday in early June: graduation day in Smallport.
Funny hats. Crepe paper. Lame metaphors. Overfrosted cake. It seems like a lot of hype for something everyone’s supposed to do, doesn’t it? Most people these days do get their high school diploma. Where I grew up, most kids were heading to four-year colleges. High school graduation wasn’t the achievement; it was just a step along the way.
Then there’s all the clichés. A whole new beginning—really? The most significant day of your life—really? If these graduates are going to go out and change the world, how come after all these years it hasn’t really changed much?
Yeah, I’m trained to be cynical about graduation. But I also remember: for some kids, graduating really is a major achievement. It really is the end of their education, and it may be the point after which they’re on their own—and in this world of postmodern adolescence and this town of poverty and drugs, a lot of them have already been on their own in too many ways for too long.
I graduated with over four hundred others, and families were not supposed to cheer when our names were called, because the band members’ fingers were already cramped from playing “Pomp and Circumstance” twenty times. Only those who were trying to be funny or thought the rules shouldn’t apply to them dare violate this edict. Everyone just wants to move on. We took it for granted.
In a small town and a small school, graduation is different. Here there are about fifty graduates, and the ceremony is open to all. Every graduate’s name is on the wall. Every one appears in the senior video, their cute baby photos and awkward middle school days and greatest sports achievements fading into each other over John Cougar Mellencamp and Green Day. And every one gets their moment of applause and whoops from the crowd when their name is called. We pause. We let each one have their moment. We join in, because even if we are not family, when we come together in the old, echoey gym, we are community.
When these community members—not your parents—were the only ones cheering for you at your game, at your play, at your poetry reading, their cheers for you now matter.
When you are first in your family to earn a diploma, graduation is a big deal. It matters.
When you walk with a baby in your arms, commencement is a victory. It matters.
When you have difficulty learning, a diploma is a prize. It matters.
So today, we cheered. We cheered for them all: for Chatterbox and The Playmaker; for the cheerleader and the guitar guy and the computer geek; for the valedictorian and the one who almost didn’t pass; for the one everyone in town knows and the one who wonders if anyone would miss him if he were gone.
They deserve it.
Congratulations, class of 2009.