In Defense of the Middle School Graduation and Other School Milestone Rituals
This time of year every year, a debate ensues in the press and among my friends about the necessity of graduation ceremonies for students under 12th grade. It seems that every few years from the time children finish preschool until their high school graduation, we are sitting in the heat listening to speeches that are too long and taking pictures with our children who never quite look right in the cap. I live in a town that has ceremonies at the end of preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school and high school. That’s a lot of tassels and diploma paper.
I agree that calling every step a graduation may be an overstatement. I have one friend who likes to point out that these lines of demarcation are remnants from a more agriculturally based society when at any point, the children may have needed to stop their formal education to tend to the family farm. He also accurately states that even as recently as our grandparents’ generation and before there were child labor laws, children left school to help support the family. Today, it is expected that the majority of students will at least complete high school and a majority of them continue to college. So, he and others ask, “Are these many graduations necessary and are we diminishing the real accomplishments of high school, college and advanced degrees by continuing to have them?”
The better question may be, “Who are these graduations about and what do they represent?” Take away the cap and gown. Spare us the many renditions of “Pomp & Circumstance” played by children with their shiny new instruments but not enough lessons to have perfected their instrument. Strip it all away and what do we have? We still have moments in time that require a message for our children. The ceremonies, after all, are about them and not about us. We get confused about that. We forget that our discomfort in the bleacher seats is not the central message of the day. The attire, songs and speeches aren’t the real message either. At each stage – end of preschool, kindergarten, elementary school and middle school – we are marking a moment when the adult expectations of the children will be changing. That deserves a ritual, not for us but for our children. They need a moment outside of their normal routine. They need that different day that says, “This phase of your growing up is ending. You’ve done well. We celebrate you. Take a deep breath and take on the new challenges.”
It is not when we do it nor is it how often we do it that should be considered. Joyful days of celebration are important for all of us. Life is tough and periodically marking our children’s accomplishments helps us all to remember what is important. We work hard to give not only to ourselves but to this next generation. Give them days to feel good about themselves. We should welcome any opportunity to feel happiness and pride.
We need to question the method, not the activity. I have a few friends who live in towns where there is a ritual called a clap out. Students who are aging out of their current elementary school status march through the school hallways and out of the building on their last day of school. The teachers and other students line the hallways clapping for them. The clap out is a lovely way to say, “Good job. Times are changing for you. We will expect more but be proud of what you’ve done.” It requires no tickets or jockeying for seats on a hot June day. It is a simple moment but different than the rest of the year. Parents could be invited to line the path, too.
While students are expected to finish middle school and continue to high school, they need the message that their lives are changing more than any of the younger students. While they may not be leaving to tend the farm or work in a factory, they are leaving some of the toughest years behind. The 6th-8th grade years are not remembered fondly by many people. Children that age are caught somewhere between childhood and young adult. They are neither here nor there and have trouble figuring themselves out. They are often uncomfortable in their own skin, especially as their bodies are rapidly changing. It is hard to know yourself when everything including your physicality is in transition. They are unsure, insecure and lacking in emotional intelligence. This lack of self-worth and self-awareness can bring out the worst in their peers and they discover that their elementary school friends who are seeking popularity can be mean and ugly. When adults talk about how they wouldn’t want to repeat some of the years of their childhood, they are often talking about those years. I see no harm in handing those 8th graders a cap and gown and saying, “Good news. It’s over. You survived and you are a better person for it. Now go forth and embrace all that high school has to offer.”
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