Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.
As I sat in my cap and gown at my high school graduation, listening to a traditional graduation attaboy speech, I couldn’t even see another student I could name in the crowd because my family had moved into town late in my senior year. I had spent the year being as active and notable as I could, but at that moment my awards felt meaningless. I was still a stranger. My next graduation—from a university—was cancelled due to riots over the war in Vietnam, and I skipped my third graduation because a selfish friend had come a long distance to stay with me and wanted to do something more fun. (I was a woeful people pleaser back then.) I told everyone the pomp and circumstance of graduation was outdated and generic and I would never plan to participate again. My mother laughed when, much later as a faculty member of a community college, I was compelled to attend graduation yearly. “Serves you right,” she said.
Something strange happened as I paraded in proper paraphernalia with the other faculty members. We passed families clicking photos as fast as they could and shouting out to their graduate with glee. The graduates had earned Associate’s Degrees and, often, merely certificates of one sort or another, but Oscar recipients couldn’t have been happier. Confetti rained through the air and music blasted from loud speakers. I realized that for many of these people, this was a banner event—the biggest achievement anyone in the family had ever reached. For most graduates, it would remain their proudest moment for the rest of their lives. For a few, it represented a door that had never been there before opening to a different future. I felt humbled.
I wished I had been able to give my students more—more critical thinking skills, more communication skills, more confidence and determination. They were facing a world of diversity and challenge. They would have to go so far with so little. A parent took me aside to tell me the special remedial reading training I had given her son had allowed him to progress past community college where he had been told he didn’t have enough ability to go on. Instead, he was graduating from a university with yet bigger goals in mind. He was lucky enough to have a supportive family behind him. I knew many faculty members didn’t believe in remedial training at a college level. They wanted to exclude students with low scores, but to me that was the last chance for students to catch up with the crowd, to develop their particular potentials beyond the academic, to earn pay that could sustain them. Students who have been left behind need to empower their imaginations so they can entertain higher realistic goals. They need to discover there are more careers than those in the aptitude tests. For at least one student, my gamble paid off.
Some students would eventually feel cheated—and rightfully so. They would spend their lives trying to pay off their school debts with income that wouldn’t stretch. They had believed the hype about a diploma guaranteeing a better life. A diploma is only evidence of a certain amount of effort to improve an information base. It doesn’t impart wisdom that can come with not only applied information, but also experience, empathy, and critical and creative thinking. Recent events have shown us the practical inadequacy of most training for individual students in our schools in spite of the immense inventiveness, effort, and unselfish love many teachers contribute. The corporate mindset that has become a major influence in our schools isn’t always concerned with truth or fairness. To its followers, education is a business. Obedience is a goal—a handmaiden to indoctrination. Education is often superficial and biased, but it is also a beginning—a vote of confidence that life can change.