Wes: I’ve always been a commencement curmudgeon. I almost skipped my own high school graduation, but as an only child my parents more than deserved a celebration kicking off my adult life at a college some 400 miles away. I still dread graduation season. Same song, year after year. Same silly hats. Same speeches imploring sleepy young people to march into a future that now seems more like a desperate battlefield than a glorious horizon.
I always vow not to write a graduation column, lest I too become derivative. But every year I drag myself out to see kids I know, many of whom have struggled toward that day through difficulties in school, family or inside their own heads. So every year I leave inspired, and I write.
I attended the ceremony for the Adult Learning Center Diploma Completion Program on June 20. It’s not how I recommend completing a high school education. In fact, I long ago advised the young people I’d come to see not to go this route. “In school you must stay,” I said in my Master Yoda voice. “No shortcuts there are in life.”
But sitting in the audience, listening to the experiences of the student speakers representing the many graduates who’d overcome great odds to walk that stage, I was more moved than if I were sitting in a commencement at Duke or Stanford. Retired Judge Jean Shepherd’s captivating speech was among the best I’ve heard in 40 years attending these things. She honored the student’s achievement with a heartfelt story of her own struggle in law school; how the willingness of a law professor to rearrange her class schedule at a crucial point in her life as a student and mother made the difference between continuing and dropping out.
My father told a similar story of his days in seminary. He was about to fail a difficult required course on church history, when on the last day of class, the professor announced that everyone would pass regardless of his grade. That allowed my dad to finish school and go on to a career in ministry in which he touched thousands of lives. He told that story in sermons to illustrate the importance of grace — a second chance freely given.
So it is for the young adults who don’t make it through the narrow, college-biased educational track our society offers. Because our school district funds this program, students can move on in life, despite hard times, personal problems or youthful foolishness.
As the students filed out of the auditorium, diplomas in hand, I thought how politicians loudly extoll the virtues of a Christian faith while neglecting the central theme of the New Testament. We’ve all needed a second chance. It has been among our greatest virtues in America, to offer one to those in need. Yet the funds for programs like this might evaporate any day as education goes underfunded. That would be sad indeed. For those who need it, diploma completion isn’t a shortcut. It’s grace.
Katie: I guess I’m also guilty of being a little underwhelmed by graduation, seeing that I’ve yet to pick up my diploma from the main office — probably just forgetfulness. But a few days before Free State’s graduation ceremony, I saw a Facebook post from one of my fellow seniors that made me question, not for the first time, why I am still on Facebook. For the sake of that person’s anonymity, here’s a (gentle) paraphrase: “Graduating from high school isn’t a big deal. People should save their excitement for when they graduate from college.”
A dispute boiled in the comments section, along with a few “likes” as well. The writer’s opinion is not isolated. I’ve heard it many times in high school, even from people I like and respect.
For students who grew up in families teeming with college graduates — families who probably did not depend upon their teenagers’ jobs to help pay the bills — a high school graduation might seem little more than an overdressed send-off to another educational institution. But high school doesn’t present such great sailing conditions to everyone. Many students go home to unsupportive or disinterested parents. Others have encouraging parents who simply don’t have the means to provide the same opportunities as the top income quartile. A few must support children of their own. Still others face personal obstacles that most of us couldn’t even fathom.
A diploma is a tremendous accomplishment regardless of one’s background, especially when life does its best to sabotage your success. Delaying graduation doesn’t diminish its importance — it just makes it more difficult to achieve. The graduates of Diploma Completion Program showed tremendous dedication to their futures by going back and finishing. Through their accomplishments, they remind all of us that the value of a high school education is everlasting.