Commentary: What could top kindergarten graduation?

The (Tacoma) News TribuneJune 18, 2012 

I’m between graduations and have been thinking of how best to balance the message.

I want to be celebratory and congratulatory without acting like they just won the Nobel Prize.

Parenting just doesn’t get any easier. We parachute parents have been told that self-esteem is everything, that each achievement no matter how minor must be praised and rewarded. I think of how well we did when I trip over the boxes filled with soccer medals, T-ball trophies, participation awards and strings of beads from field day.

Given America’s celebration inflation, where should we stack college graduation with other graduations? It’s higher in the hierarchy than high school, for sure. But is it a bigger deal than kindergarten?

You think I joke about kindergarten? I was searching for a cheap deal on diploma frames. (There is no such thing, by the way. The deal, that is; not the frames.) I came across more than one website dedicated to “preschool and kindergarten graduation gift ideas.”

Could this be where we failed? Is this the root of all fears and phobias, all insecurities and instabilities? Did we not make enough of their graduation from kindergarten? Should we have sprung for the Personalized Graduation Bear or the ABC Gold Necklace?

We made up for it at first grade graduation, elementary school graduation, middle school graduation and high school graduation. Each time I, too, disregarded the principal’s request not to cheer when my graduates’ names were announced. I, too, failed to hold my applause until the end.

I didn’t mean to break the rules. But when Andrew Abbott’s parents cheered so loudly (or whoever was first that year), I had to follow suit or else my kids might have concluded they were less deserving of an airhorn blast than Andrew.

Thankfully, our principals weren’t as committed to rule-following as those at South Florence High School in South Carolina. A mom there was handcuffed and removed from a graduation ceremony for excessive cheering. In Mobile, Ala., the archbishop refused to pose for pictures with two students whose family members ignored his admonition against loud demonstrations.

Overreaction, perhaps. But I fear we have reversed the purpose of commencement ceremonies. Where once they were somber commemorations of the institution itself as well as the concept of education, they have become a rowdy party dedicated almost entirely to that year’s graduates. Students refer to “their” graduation and get indignant at elements of the program that aren’t about them.

There has to be a sweet spot between celebrating the individual achievements and commemorating the institution that made those achievements possible. It might have been struck last week by a teacher in Massachusetts.

“Commencement speaker blasts students,” read one headline. High school English teacher David McCullough Jr. didn’t blast them exactly. He just said “you are not special. You are not exceptional.” (Read and see the speech at bit.ly/L811Rv.)

“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is,” he said. “If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. … As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic is more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatamalans.”

McCullough asked his students to achieve something real.

“Be worthy of your advantages,” he told them.

“The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement – not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.

“... Get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself and grab hold with both hands.

“The greatest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

“Because everyone is.”

(That said, we’re still so very proud of them)

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