At our last English department meeting for this school year, there was a feeling of jubilation in the air as we quickly went through the nitty-gritty administrative details (Don’t forget to turn in keys! Don’t forget to update your curriculum map!) and chit-chatted about our upcoming summer plans (No summer school! I get to stay home with the kiddos!). Eventually we educators got caught into discussing the popularity of graduations, and how preschool and kindergarten ceremonies are now A THING where toddlers parade across stage in construction paper hats to accept certificates of early education merit. The discussion then turned to whether or not these types of ceremonies are really warranted, and not just for the toddler set. Why do high schools celebrate the ending of a school year? Aren’t there more important life events one could throw confetti for?
This past Saturday, one hundred or so of our school’s seniors took part in such a celebration. They marched across the Blaisdell Concert Hall stage, smiles as wide as the ocean, enthusiastically shook hands with the president of the school as they grabbed their diplomas, and pumped their arms in a victory call.
WE DID IT. WE DID IT. YES, WE DID IT.
Seeing these rudy-faced young adults eager to enter life after uniformed class schedules and curfews made me quite excited for them (I’m not embarrassed to admit my eyes welled up with tears of joy), but the questions about the uniqueness and practicality of celebrating graduations still remain.
Why celebrate the ending of a school year when there are still so many more challenging life events yet to come? Should we as a society award praise to a child who has attended four years of English, science, and math classes (all required, mind you), and emerged from the tests and homework being able to analyze Shakespeare and compute biochemical equations?
Why do parents, family, and friends shed tears of joy when seeing their loved ones parade across stage wearing a black cap and gown, when in truth, said students still have the rest of their lives to fully experience?
Is it really so impressive that students basically followed our society’s rigorous educational rules (i.e. spending hours listening to lectures and even more hours studying in hopes of getting the “A” that will propel them to a good college) and survived it all? Are we merely celebrating the fact that they were pushed by us adults to do something which was PROBABLY not what the teenagers actually wanted to be doing anyway?
Initially, I agreed with the majority of the educators in the room in response to these questions. YES! Life hasn’t really begun for these students. Lets not delude them into thinking that high school IS IT. There’s attending college. There’s finding a job. There’s working at a job. There’s dating (UGH). There’s getting married. There’s (possibly) having children. Life has so much more to offer after the cap and gown ceremony!
But then I realized what my high school years were like.
Midway through my sophomore year, I felt the pull of inadequacy tugging on my spirit when I saw classmates acing tests that I received all red marks on. I struggled through understanding Japanese characters, and no matter how many flashcards I made, the brushstrokes for kanjis never took to my brain. After one incident when I had to give an oral presentation in history class but stood there in front of my peers, eyes bulging with fear because I didn’t remember what to say, I realized that I still had two more years of being just “mediocre” in my studies. It was a sobering realization that I would not be the valedictorian, salutatorian, or even in the top 10 percent of my graduating class. I had to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is meant to be great at everything–and it was a wake up call that happened during my high school years.
Ironically, I spent a lot of my breaks completing homework so I could have free time when I got home to practice my oboe. I thought that since I couldn’t excel in academics, I could at least have SOME talent in music. Even carving out for myself that chunk of rehearsal time at home, however, didn’t leave me feeling any more relaxed or confident in my musical abilities. Instead, the more times I played the same run in the Saint-Saens concerto or practiced my chromatic scale, the more my weaknesses were exposed. And then I got the awful case of the “shoulds”: I “should” practice at least 2 hours a day to get better. I “should” play “Metamorphosis” in this manner so that the judges would like it. I “should” make the first chair of the symphony, otherwise no one will think I’m great at anything. It was a lot of “shoulds”, and in the end, those “shoulds” left me feeling even more inadequate in my capabilities. I had to learn that the limitations and expectations I placed on myself could be either helpful (yes, set goals!) or harmful (no, don’t place unnecessary stress on yourself!)–and it was a wake up call that happened during my high school years.
In the midst of trying to attain somewhat decent grades and medals in music recitals, I was also highly influenced by my long-legged, tanned, surfer-like female classmates who seemed to exude the sexual appeal that guys at school desired. I realized that looking the role of a “popular” girl meant that I would have to turn from the person God made me to be into another creature, and maybe once that transformation occurred, I would find acceptance and inclusion. I, being only 5’1″, Japanese, and inept at water sports, was aesthetically the complete opposite of what I deemed to be the “perfect girl”, but that did not stop me from trying to transform myself to a surfer chic. As a result, I used self-tanning lotion to make myself darker, flooded my closets with thin-strapped tanks, and bought a pair of reef slippers that didn’t fit me well, but who cared, because all the “popular” girls had them. Still, my short legs did not compare to the taller Caucasian gals’, and my stick straight hair did not flow in the wind like theirs. I secretly desired to have the attention those “popular” girls had, because the smiles from boys, the look of envy from other girls, the carefree attitude they encompassed were what I was missing. One night, I distinctly remember laying on my bed, eyes opened to the Heavens, hypothesizing that only IF I had the perfect exterior, THEN I would feel special and THEN I’d be internally happy. The fact is that Jesus made each one of us perfect in His sight–sadly, I didn’t realize this during my time as a teenager, but what it means to have self-acceptance (or lack thereof) reared its’ head during my high school years.
So as we teachers talked about the absurdity of graduation, my knee-jerk reaction of “Yeah, that’s right!!! Life hasn’t started yet!!!” changed to one of “No. Wait a minute. High school is HELLA hard.” In what other time in one’s life will a person have to learn pretty challenging lessons (how to accept oneself, how to set goals), all the while battling teenage insecurities and (gulp) hormones? What other time besides during high school will students realize that there IS a big world out there beyond the walls of the classroom, and taking that first step to the unknown is tremendously intimidating? Even more nerve wracking is that they are doing it all as 18 year olds without any previous experience living on their own in the “real world.”
And don’t forget about all the other “stuff” that high schoolers are dealing with that we teachers don’t see: parent relationships disintegrating, strife between siblings, sports injuries that can knock a kid out for months on end, friendships changing as social circles collide, and teenage hormones running a muck. It’s almost like these high schoolers are back in the terrible twos stage where toddlers are asserting their independence and personality, except these young adults have pimples, don’t speak in gibberish, and can drive.
Clearly, graduation is a time of celebration.
We are celebrating a monumental time of inner growth and development.
We are celebrating that many students had to endure much emotional and spiritual learning beyond the academic rigor of papers and tests.
We are celebrating how high schoolers are taking that next step to fulfill the call God has upon their lives.
While typing out this post, I’m reminded of all the graduating seniors I saw parade across the stage this past weekend to accept their diplomas. Some looked enthralled, while others seemed relieved. Either way, there was satisfaction in the fact that God was there with each one. He had knit every single student in his mother’s womb, thoughtfully cultivated that individual with His Holy Spirit, and amazingly, we in the crowd were able to see His handiwork there on stage. Matthew 28:20 urges believers to “Go forth and make disciples of all nations”, and that is exactly what this graduating group of 2017 are doing. They are taking a spiritual (and literal) step from the life they’ve known and are seeking to do God’s will in their lives.
My high school experiences were rough, to say the least, yet those times of trial were made all the sweeter when I stepped on the stage at Blaisdell some 18 years ago and received my diploma. Yes, it was merely a piece of paper that stated I had accumulated the required amount of credits to graduate, but having that certificate in hand meant more than grades. It showed that I was a fighter, that I was a survivor. It demonstrated that I could push myself through great mental, emotional, and physical strife, and by God’s grace emerge on the other side ready to do His will.
So celebrate, class of 2017. Celebrate your achievements, your failures, and the path God is leading you on. Celebrate. Celebrate.