My younger brother graduated from high school yesterday. Before the part where they called each graduate’s name and had them walk across the stage to receive their diploma, they did their annual reminder for families to hold their applause until the end. The reason, they state, is that the graduates want it to be a formal occasion and that singling out a graduate with cheering and clapping is embarrassing to the graduate.
I call BS.
It was, word for word, the exact same reminder that was read at my high school graduation thirteen years ago. They never surveyed my class of graduates as to how we felt about cheering. Over half a dozen of my siblings have graduated since then, and I don’t believe their classes were ever polled either. And that’s fine — the graduates only graduate once, so they aren’t the best positioned to set the norms of the graduation ritual. But then it doesn’t hold water to say that it’s the graduates who call for the solemnity.
Which brings me to the graduation speaker. Though it was kept a secret until the day of, the address given was written and delivered by a teacher of the school for the past forty-two years, who is finally taking her well-deserved retirement. It may have been one of the best graduation speeches I have ever heard, even though I understood only parts of it. The entire first segment was only for the graduating class. It was in-jokes, references, and name-dropping, and the graduates loved it. Even as the speech continued, it was clearly tailored to the specific audience of 2016 graduates, though it still applied to the audience at large. This teacher could have made it about her, about her years of teaching, or about the school itself. Indeed, most graduation speeches I have heard are less about the audience and more about the speaker. And goodness knows forty-two years of teaching likely provided copious material to mine for bits of wisdom. But she focused on the students in front of her, and the time she spent with them — just the last ten percent of her career. And I think that was exceptionally meaningful.
Like any ritual with significant cultural importance, a graduation can be tricky. A balance must be struck between all the parties who are invested in it. A graduation is the graduating class; it is important to the families and friends of the graduates, as well as alumni and future graduates; and it matters to the educators and administrators who repeat this ceremony year after year, for every single student. Not only that, but there’s often overlap between these groups — younger family members who are future graduates; teachers who are also parents; administrators who are also alumni. And even then, individuals within the groups will have conflicting values and ways to demonstrate their values. Despite the reminder, there were still some families who cheered for their graduates, and I don’t begrudge them one bit. Even my brother asked our family to transgress slightly: he asked us to bring signs. There’s nothing in the ritual reminder about signs, but to some they likely undercut the intended gravity of the ceremony. Especially considering that we mostly recreated signs that he brought to football games. (I brought a dry erase board so I could continually renew my slogans, though it proclaimed “Congration You Done It” longer than anything else.)
The point is, we exist alongside one another anyway in our day to day. Coming together for rituals reminds us that we may have different values and different ways of living out our values. And though it might not be completely comfortable, we compromise and make room for others — out of wanting to be inclusive; or just because we want to survive yet another graduation.