Friday, June 18, 2010
Reflections on graduation: Lessons in community
As the concert band launched into a festive rendition of the recessional march and a sea of maroon and white graduation caps took flight, mingling briefly in the air before returning to their owners, I exhaled gratefully. Certainly, high school had been a formative and enjoyable experience for me, but I couldn’t help appreciating the new-found freedom that commencement granted me. In the following months, I would be free of the petty irritations of banal homework assignments and the handful of seemingly endless classes I never wanted to take in the first place. If what my older friends were telling me was true, college would grant me the opportunity to make my own choices about the direction of study I wished to take, and even homework assignments could seem enjoyable in light of this. I couldn’t wait.
Processing slowly out of the high school gym where graduates and their families had been forced to hide from the rain, we were jostled out into the adjacent courtyard. There, students milled about with their friends and families, exchanging hugs, kisses and pleasantries, the air filled with a sense of accomplishment and a whiff of cigar smoke. Standing about with my fellow students – or alumnae, as the case may be – I shrugged off the pressure of four years and began to reflect on just what graduation had meant to me.
Naturally, there were a few thoughts which immediately came to mind, sentiments I’d expected to feel. Certainly, graduation represents an enormous academic and emotional accomplishment. Perhaps more importantly, it acts as a pivot point, turning one’s life in a whole new direction. It is a figurative bridge in one’s career, and it entails both many goodbyes and many introductions. Seeing all my friends wandering the courtyard with their families, I was reminded of just how much I would miss them. But the sight of some 300 graduates milling about in their robes suggested something further to me, something I hadn’t anticipated.
I began to realize that up until this moment, I had been thinking only of myself. I was relieved to be rid of my homework and the classes with which I had become disillusioned. I anticipated my college experience eagerly. I cherished the new opportunities I would soon be granted and feared the loss of my friends. These, my own selfish concerns, had dominated my reflections on graduation to this point.
But of course, graduation isn’t about any one person. It’s not about individuality. It’s about the collective strength of a group of young people. None of my accomplishments this year would have been possible without the help of hundreds of people: my parents, my teachers, and perhaps most significantly, my fellow students. Standing in the gym hearing our names called one by one, we formed a tight pack of closed ranks. We were not 350 individuals, but rather a sea of unity and interconnectedness.
Especially in a year like this one, so filled with tragedy and hardship, it was important for us to act as a unit, as a community to survive. In our adult lives, our sense of community will be tested ceaselessly, if my own parents’ experience can be taken as a representative example. High school was perhaps the first mature instance of such a test, and the lessons it taught us about community might transcend in value the lessons we learned in the classroom.
As I look back in my imagination on the graduation ceremony, I try to forget that some of us wore a gold tassel on our robes signifying participation in National Honor Society, that some of us wore a sash indicating enrollment in the METCO program, and that specific students were recognized with awards. Certainly, all these qualities are commendable and ought to be noticed. Academic proficiency, success in the face of adversity, and overall quality of character should be recognized. But somehow, I wish that they weren’t recognized at graduation.
Some of us perform better in school than others. That’s been a cold, hard fact since the days of middle school when most of us first realized it. But at graduation, regardless of our grades, every student standing in those spotless caps and gowns had qualified to move on in life. Every one of us had passed high school successfully. Let the other 364 days be for recognizing excellence and individuality. For me, graduation ought to be a time when we appreciate what we have collectively accomplished.
If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that my personal accomplishments will never approach the importance of the communities I will live in as a whole. And that’s exactly how it ought to be. ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito