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When the School Becomes the Graduation Sheriff

Several years ago, I was traveling across the state with then-President of the MI Education Association, Julius Maddox, and our conversation wandered into territory where I had some strong opinions: the overuse of praise, awards and celebrations in schools.

I thought that kindergarten "graduations" with tiny mortarboards and grandma snapping pictures were overkill--and endless middle school Award Nights where making the B+ honor roll was worthy of a certificate and applause were just not necessary. High school graduation? Sure. A real accomplishment. But I had seen enough calligraphy-scribed honor certificates dumped into the trash by heedless 8th graders to have developed a cynical perspective on celebrating each and every minor milepost.

Maddox soundly but thoughtfully disagreed: For kids whose future is assured by vigilant parenting and adequate resources--those whose expectations automatically include high school, college and career--perhaps an end-of-kindergarten ceremony is meaningless, he remarked. But for other children, the future is a crapshoot.

In his district, parties marking the successful end of middle school were part of the culture. Gifts were welcomed--a card from Auntie Mae with five dollars could go into a college fund. It was reason to gather family, celebrate and push a youngster into the next level, buoyed by plenty of recognition, praise and encouragement. We applaud at every level, he said. There's no worry about too much joy or pride.

I remembered our discussion when the story emerged, last week, about the superintendent in Senatobia, Mississippi pressing charges against family members who cheered for high school graduates. The charges were quickly dropped--but the superintendent made his point: We don't like the way you choose to celebrate. And we're in charge.

I've been to more school commencement exercises than I care to remember--usually directing the band in interminable repetitions of "Pomp and Circumstance," and wishing whoever was leading the procession would walk faster. My district eventually shifted its annual tradition from graduation in the football stadium to graduation in a rented sports arena--good news for musicians, acoustically and in keeping valuable musical instruments away from precipitation.

In both places, however, people behaved as if they were at a sporting event--cheering, catcalling, hooting and hollering. Once, on a warm June day, I was startled to see a shirtless school employee in the bleachers, right next to a guy manning an air horn. And this was an all-white, suburban school district (in case you're wondering and judging). Rude behavior is so deeply embedded, even rewarded, in American culture--just turn on cable TV--that making assumptions about who knows how to behave, and who doesn't, is pointless.

I like a nice, dignified ceremony as much as anybody. But the way you get that is by teaching appropriate, respectful behavior for more formal events, beginning in kindergarten. Not with threats and recriminations, and certainly not by pressing charges.  Similarly, the way you get students to remain in school and attend regularly is to offer meaningful classes and relationships. Not threatening families' well-being. Playing sheriff is a lot less effective than being role models for the benefits of a good education.

And--when the event becomes more about rule-following than overt joy and celebration, something very important is lost. Graduating from high school is a genuine reason for festivity. Congratulations--you did it! Now--what's next?

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