Along with walking, driving or being in your own home, black Americans can now add “attending graduation” to the list of mundane activities that could get them arrested. In Senatobia, Miss., last week, school superintendent Jay Foster pressed charges against members of three families for cheering at a high school graduation. Foster says that the prosecution is not racially motivated, and that he is also seeking to charge an unidentified white person who cheered during the ceremony.
But the insistence that a dignified graduation is a silent one smacks of classicism and racism. Somehow even the joy of marginalized communities is categorized as a threat in the minds of people who are not actually in danger.
Foster’s description of the cheering as being reminiscent of an episode of the Jerry Springer show is especially troubling when you think about the fact there were no fights and no injuries at this graduation. In fact, all that appears to have happened is a handful of people cheering for their loved ones. The expectation of silence carries with it an assumption that there is only way to behave in public, evidenced by the torrent of criticism Serena Williams received for daring to strike a few dance moves after winning Olympic gold in 2012.
In a country where graduates regularly pass beach balls around during the ceremony, a little levity from the audience is far from the most disruptive thing that can happen at graduation. The usual claim is that bans on cheering ensure that every student’s name can be heard, as though administrators are required to announce the names as quickly as possible. In fact, they are in control of the timing of the ceremony, and can simply opt to allow some time between the reciting of names. And if the concern is that every student have that individual time in the spotlight, why not arrange the ceremony so that each graduate can receive the full accolades from their family and friends?
As ridiculous as the idea of pressing charges for cheering sounds to most people, it’s only one example of administrators turning what should be a day of celebration into a battle over some arbitrary definition of dignity that prioritizes silence and conformity over actual celebration. Yes, in some cultures in America, graduation is apparently three solemn hours of speeches with a smattering of polite applause at the end. But for many marginalized communities, access to education is still relatively new, and the work required to overcome the odds and get their children on the road to success is incredibly onerous. When everyone has worked so hard to help a child succeed, then of course everyone wants to celebrate. And yes, that includes cheering at the moment the diploma is conveyed. I was fortunate enough to have gone to school in an era of graduations where families were allowed to cheer, and I remember those moments as some of the proudest of my life. I don’t remember my name being called, but I do remember my (now deceased) very genteel grandmother’s whoop of joy as I crossed the stage.
Students from marginalized communities and their families don’t just find sounds at the ceremony policed by overzealous bureaucrats. Indigenous American students who want to wear an eagle feather for their graduations have had to go as far as filing lawsuits against their school districts for the right to add a culturally significant item to their graduation regalia. It’s apparently imperative that graduates look dignified in their cheap, brightly colored satin robes and caps made of cardboard and string. A silent cultural demonstration cannot be permitted.
Meanwhile, decorating graduation caps with glitter or pictures is so common that entire Pinterest boards are devoted to it. And it’s not a truly American teen movie or show until something ridiculous is shown happening at graduation, from pool noodles being passed to some intrepid young soul streaking across the stage. As a culture, we have long valued individualism right up until it ran into the reality that our melting pot myth requires more assimilation than engagement.
In a country where equal educational access for all was won by way of Mendez v. Westminster and Brown v. Board of Education, where the very concept of Indian boarding schools was that killing the culture could save the people, where even now racial and economic inequality in educational access has led to the school-to-prison pipeline, the decision of some administrations to focus on restricting noise, attire or shoes seems more like a petty exercise of power. Graduations are celebrations of achievement, not funerals or affairs of state. At the end of all the hard work and sacrifice, shouldn’t we be happy to celebrate (however quietly or loudly) and have some fun with our children?
I don’t expect schools to let graduation ceremonies turn into raucous free-for-alls, but I do want administrations to ask themselves what’s more important: kids hearing two or three speeches they’ll forget by the time they get their robes off, or students and their families and their teachers coming together as a community? I think it’s the latter. I’d rather remember the fun I had at my graduations than the nap I took at a joyless ceremony.