In the two weeks leading up to the graduation of T.C. Williams's class of 2005 on Friday night, I attended 11 parties for my departing seniors. I was so partied out that I had to pass on the mega-revelry that capped off the week: the All-Night Graduation Party that started shortly after the ceremony itself ended and went to almost 5 a.m. yesterday.
The parties -- don't get me wrong -- were great. They were in lovely homes with beautiful gardens. The food was wonderful, the parents couldn't have been more gracious and, frankly, I was flattered to be invited. Most of the gatherings were put on by the parents of high-achieving girls who had worked hard for four years, gotten into fine colleges and had something real to celebrate.
Still, in the midst of all the festivities, watching some of the less accomplished boys sitting around trying to look cool, I couldn't help thinking of the title of the first play my English class studied back in October: "Much Ado About Nothing." Here everyone was, supposedly marking a major milestone in life, but a lot of the merrymaking felt no more meaningful than it did at any of the scores of parties that students hold on any number of special occasions throughout the year. What, I found myself wondering, is the big deal about high school graduation when nowadays, practically every teenager in America who's willing to put in the "seat time" and stay felony-free gets a diploma?
A high school education has undeniably lost luster through the years. Back in the 1920s, when my dad was the only one of his first-generation Irish buddies to go on to college, getting out of high school was a real commencement. It meant the end of your formal education, going to work, and the start of life as an independent adult. Even 35 years ago, when I started teaching at T.C., graduation carried more weight, if only because, after years of segregation, many of the African American kids were the first in their families to earn a high school diploma.
But today, as T.C. senior Russell Moncure put it when I asked him last week to describe his feelings, "Around here, graduating from high school is not an accomplishment. Everyone's expected to do it and go on to a four-year college." Brittany Greene, another senior, agrees. "We were forced to go to high school," she says. "Every kid in the country has to do it, so how can graduating be that important?" And one senior confided to me that the only reason she was going to the ceremony was so that she could get money from her relatives. The ceremony itself, where graduates are handed an empty diploma cover, "is fake," she said. (Students get their actual diplomas later, lest they get away with not returning or paying for school property such as books, athletic equipment, calculators, etc.)
Such cynicism from these young people goes against the popular culture's glorified image of high school as four of the most important years of a young person's life. But it's definitely there. I can't deny that while I had some terrific students this year, I also had some horrible ones whom I would have failed had I not thought that they needed counseling or, in a few cases, drug rehab, more than they needed five weeks of English in summer school. But because there is such a social stigma for middle-class kids who don't go on to four-year colleges, many parents are sending these kids on to higher education, spending huge sums of money to get them out of the house in hopes that they will grow up in the next four years.
When I think about that, I thank goodness for the immigrant students. Here are the kids to whom high school graduation still means a lot. Nothing moves me more than watching them process to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." It's a thrill to see the excitement among the parents and large numbers of extended family -- many dressed in traditional garb -- of the kids from Afghanistan, Ghana, Bangladesh and other parts of the world who've come to T.C. For these people, graduation is a sign of the family's assimilation into its new country, the children's mastering of a new language, and their readiness to take a big step toward realizing the promise of America that other kids take for granted.
Unlike so many of their classmates, most of these kids are not going to be drifting into college to get away from their parents and to party. They'll be going to get an education so that they can get an even stronger foothold in this country. "Getting my diploma is a big achievement for me," says Essay Giovanni, who came from Ethiopia two summers ago. "American kids don't appreciate all the opportunities they have to learn. In Ethiopia we had trouble getting books. Computers for students were unheard of. Here every student is given a computer and then they complain that they aren't powerful enough. I just wish I had come here earlier so I could have taken advantage of all that the school offers."
Farjana Ahkter wasn't on the party circuit for the last two weeks, but I dare say that Friday night's ceremony signified more to her than it did to most of the partygoers. Farjana's father brought her and her two sisters to America from Bangladesh six years ago. For the first two years, she says, "school here was hell. Some kids mocked me about my clothes, my accent. They kept asking 'What are you?' Those who didn't mock me just ignored me. It was like I was invisible."
But Farjana persevered because she knew her dad had left everything behind so that she could have the educational and job opportunities that America offers. Teachers aren't supposed to have favorites, but Farjana, who's going on to Northern Virginia Community College in the fall, is one of mine. She was in an enrichment class I taught three summers ago, and since that time I've seen her grow from an awkward, shy girl into a confident, sophisticated young woman. This year she shamed most American-born students in my AP English class, acing tests on Shakespeare, Faulkner, Jane Austen and everything else. For her and her family, Friday night's ceremony meant that she has succeeded at the most difficult part of her adjustment to America.
American-born kids, though, may have to wait for college graduation to find the same feeling of accomplishment, of finishing a phase of life that has prepared them for the next. Leonard Crook sat through his third T.C. commencement on Friday night as his youngest child, Patrick, graduated. "It's supposed to be a rite of passage, but you have to wonder how much meaning it has," said Crook, who also attended the graduation of his oldest son, Marshall, from the College of William and Mary three weeks ago. "There was a finality about the William and Mary graduation. Many kids are going out to look for jobs. They really are starting something."
But some say that even college is losing that significance. Sarah Ball, who just finished her freshman year at Duke University, says that "graduate school is becoming the new college. Admissions offices are marketing college as a holistic experience, a rite of passage where you get away from home, live with new people. So most kids aren't thinking of learning at all; classes are the last thing on their minds."
Still, though leaving high school may be less momentous today than it was in the past, as a teacher, I find it moving to watch the students take their final bows on the T.C. stage. My colleagues feel the same way. "I always have to brace myself, especially when the kids I've coached in crew walk by," says English teacher Ed Cannon. "We have been through intense emotional experiences together. I've seen them tested and watched them blossom and mature. It's always hard to lose them."
Adding to the poignancy of this year's graduation was the fact that it was the last for John Porter, T.C.'s principal for the last 22 years. "I'm glad I'm getting out of here if he isn't going to be around, but it's kind of nice that he is graduating with us," said senior Laura Williams, echoing the feelings of many of the graduates. As highly as I think of Porter, I was still surprised to hear the enormous, unanimous outpouring of affection and respect for him from students of every stripe. "He personalized school for us," said graduate Whitney Post. "You can tell he really liked us. He went to every event." (Porter was known to drive 40 miles in rush hour traffic to attend a game of our girls' ice hockey team and then return to Alexandria to catch the end of a basketball game.) Added Tajdikur Rahman, another grad, "He wrote students personal notes when they did well. He's one of the only people who never misspelled my name." I don't know how Porter's absence will change T.C., but his departure marked this graduation as special.
And finally, there were the two candles on the stage. They were there to remind us of Schuyler Jones and Laura Lynam, members of the class of 2005 who didn't make it to graduation. Schuyler was killed by a boy from another school during the fall of his sophomore year. Laura died in a car accident last October. Some students were worried that memories of the two would put a damper on Friday night, but most felt like Liz Casey. "It's their graduation, too," she said.
The tragedies of Laura and Schuyler hold a lesson for the parents and teachers of all the graduates -- and the grads themselves. Whether they were at the top or the bottom of the class, we can all rejoice that they've survived the worst of the teenage years and lived to go on to the next phase of their lives. Graduating from high school may not seem so most of the time, but looked at in this light, it really is a big deal.
Author's e-mail: May6dog@aol.com
Pat Welsh has taught English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria for more than 30 years.