What are we celebrating at graduations?


Last month my daughter graduated from high school. Not once but twice. She was fortunate to attend a public elite high school housed at Western Kentucky University her junior and senior year, and Gatton Academy is where she learned what it means to be a learner.  Her home school kept her on the rolls (and might I add, kept all her ADM) so she was in a sense dual-enrolled. In early May, we made our way to Bowling Green, a two-hour drive we faced at least once monthly for the last two years to collect her over closed weekends. I was prepared for tears but none came as I listened to two of her peers, elected by their class, give speeches to their 67 classmates, family and friends. Honestly, I caught myself thinking I’d stepped into a TED Talk as I focused on their messages. Looking back, I think I was just in awe. The night before we had witnessed every student (at least those who chose to be recognized) share a community experience with the Gatton Academy staff who had replaced not only their principals and counselors but in many ways their parents over the last two years. It seemed like a lifetime since we had first seen this group as a collective during orientation that summer before junior year. As I watched my daughter cross the stage that first time, I wasn’t watching her going to get her diploma. I was watching her going to get a hug from her Gatton Dad. I told myself that I didn’t tear up because it wasn’t final. The quivering lip was because I knew how much these people meant in my daughter’s life and I knew she would miss them. And there was another ceremony still to come.


A few weeks later it was time for her home school graduation. The venue couldn’t be more opposite. Rather than a small campus theater, we were in a neighboring town’s convention center. Ford Center, normally filled with Icemen fans and concert goers, brimmed with Henderson County students robed in maroon and white. Among these kids were my daughter’s childhood friends, former band mates, academic rivals and a soon to be college roommate. Nearly a fourth of her class had been my kid, my student at one time. There were waves of emotions as I caught up with several in the foyer before they marched in and as I heard certain names called for recognition. Okay, I did cry a few times, but they were good tears and not for my daughter so they don’t count. Pride swelled for the salutatorian, who gave a less than serious speech, because I knew how it went against this young man’s nature to be a comic.  I wondered if his peers caught the message carefully crafted in the light-hearted banter and tucked in the Dr. Seuss quotes. With a little irritation I watched the superintendent look on seemingly unmoved. I noticed as students crossed the stage that there was little eye contact, much less hugging. In fact, the respect and reverence that we witnessed in the first ceremony was lacking. It only took a few students to make a mockery of the formality-tumbling off the stage, flipping money at administrators and families blatantly ignoring the moratorium on air horns to make it clear there were no consequences for disruption. By the end, there was so much confusion that the seniors tossed their mortar caps before they were instructed to turn their tassels and were declared official graduates. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing these things out as the decorum police or even as a preference for formal versus informal. And mind you there were certainly aspects of traditional formality that were upheld–the marshalls and escorts in their gowns and tuxedos were a sight to behold. It was the loss of meaning that struck me so intensely. I left wondering what the school; what the district valued. The evident lack of respectful relationships caused me to think about what needs to change so that my younger daughter can have an experience more like the first.

I think my favorite family pictures from these two different ceremonies reflect the tone of each. In the last month, several friends and families have celebrated the same milestone with their children. I have enjoyed hearing about and reading the FaceBook posts about the different experiences. In so many ways, our children’s graduations cause us to speculate about when our round faced kinders transformed into these young people ready to enter the world. I was struck this morning by my high school classmate Janet’s FB photo album titled, “A long road of a journey that is just beginning.” It felt a little Zen. That’s not like Janet. But maybe the coffee was in full effect when she posted. I read it again. Then I added the comment, “Love your perspectives…”  Yes, we are in this parenting place where we are looking back in awe and looking ahead in wonder.


1 thought on “What are we celebrating at graduations?

  1. You have such insight and I love you for all that you have done for your family I do hope Zoe will follow in Ellen’s footsteps. I love you very much Grandpa xoxoxoxo

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