Students speak, and these are sometimes disastrous, but O., a member of my basketball team and recent recipient of the Most Outstanding Male Athlete award, speaks about inspiration. His brother attended our school when you had to choose to join a gang or be endlessly bullied by them. His brother made the former choice, O. tells us, only to recant during high school, work hard, and graduate. He speaks of his sister, who subsequently had to overcome the gang-reputation his brother engendered, and of her success in doing so, and her desire to go to college. O. tells us how they have inspired him, and caused him to see in himself a person who is thus capable of inspiring others. It's a powerful moment, and not immune from the constant dichotomy of this place, of this work. I listen to O.'s words, and see behind him, on the other side of the fence that separates our campus from the city's drainage canal, one of my students, C., hiding in the bushes, laying in the mud and the muck, peering through the fence, separated, apart, in dire need of someone to inspire him.
Dichotomy: O. speaking of inspiration as C. hides in the dank and the dirt.
After the names are called, the POY presents the graduates, his voice getting that high, pinched sound, breaking a little on the word fantastic, and the kids come walking out of the tight rows, passing the teacher section. Without prior discussion, spontaneously, we stand, and form a line for the kids to pass, congratulating each in turn. There are tears and hugs and complicated handshake-fist pound greetings. There is E., my guy, the one I teach for. M., former point guard and the nicest kid around. A., D., and M., a fantastic group of girls, and T., who is far more talented than he knows. And then comes W., a newcomer last year, who started so far behind, barely able to speak English, but always the first one to volunteer to read, someone who has never missed a homework assignment, never missed an opportunity to ask for help, for guidance, for challenge and thus became one of the most successful students I've ever taught. We hug, and I'm getting tearful when I say how proud I am. How proud.
It's a complicated thing, dichotomous, because this is a great moment, powerful, and it's important for us to provide it. But it's not really graduation. It's leaving. Yes, there are diplomas, but this paper carries all the life-outcome power of the Big Goal Mastery certificates I handed out last Thursday. But still we celebrate.
We are the only middle school in the District that holds its ceremony on campus. Half of the others do so at high schools, and half at San Jose State University. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that their motivations in doing so are pure, and not emerging from a fear or desire to avoid or limit community access, but the decision-making is nonetheless poor. By holding an 8th grade promotion ceremony at a high school or college, and calling it graduation you are elevating the importance and value of the educational achievement to date -- namely, the acquisition of a 1.75 GPA -- beyond all recognizable of defendable worth, and demeaning the subsequent challenges to come. Kids don't need to graduate high school because they already had a graduation ceremony at one. On some level we run the risk of sending a message of exit and accomplishment that bears no relationship to how real achievement is defined in other communities. Here is the stink of low expectations.
There's been much talk. Next year we won't call it graduation, but promotion. In keeping with all prevailing policies, kids with the vaunted 1.75 will received the piece of paper, but to actually participate in the ceremony, to actually walk, we may require a 2.5, or higher. Perhaps there will be no cap'n'gown-stroll-across-the stage ceremony at all. Maybe an open-school party, in keeping with the idea of recognition and celebration, but let's not pretend that this accomplishment, such as it is, conveys a sense of finality or completion.
I walk around after it's over, and there is more hugging, and parents ask me to pose with their children for pictures. "How's my hair?" I ask in two languages, and the shutters click. "How many more graduations will you have?" I ask every kid. At least one they tell me. Two, others say. One of my favorite kids ever, S., with starting roles in three sports and a 3.83 GPA, says two very quickly, but his mom shakes her head slightly, "Tres," she says. And as he looks over at her with a question forming on his mouth, she says it more firmly, "Tres."
I smile, and nod, and look past her toward the fence, and the bushes, where C. crouched and hid on the dirty, slippery ground.