Monday, June 08, 2009

A beautiful and moving high school graduation experience

This weekend I traveled to Salt Lake City to visit my son and his family.  The trip’s purpose was to celebrate my grandson’s graduation from Intermountain Christian School.  In more forty years of teaching at four Universities,  I have attended countless graduation ceremonies.  This was one of the best - and not only because the celebration included a close family member.

What made it so special?

Most important was the palpable sense of community.  The graduating class was only 20 students, all of whom were known to local audience members.  When I introduced myself to those sitting around me as a graduate’s grandfather, this was an entrée to animated conversation. Each graduate walked in slowly and was introduced to the audience individually.  The applause that greeted each was prolonged and enthusiastic.

The ceremony was short.  Many graduations are characterized by what I call negative synergy - the whole is somehow less than the sum of the parts.  Academic institutions can have many stakeholders.  Since graduation is one of the most important annual institution-wide events, each feels entitled to a piece of the action.  When one adds the long parade of several hundred - perhaps a thousand or more - graduates walking across the stage to receive their degrees and shake the President’s hand, the ceremony can seem interminable.  Intermountain Christian School’s graduation was over in an hour, with everyone feeling fully celebrated and acknowledged.

The addresses by the class salutatorian and valedictorian were outstanding.  Most graduation speeches are unmemorable, except, perhaps for the graduates.  Among the many I have heard, few stand out.  One was Representative Barbara Jordan’s passionate address on the role of university students in the civil rights movement, not long before her death.  NPR correspondent Daniel Schorr used the concept of ‘virtual reality’ as a powerful metaphor to emphasize the importance of journalistic integrity in sustaining democratic societies.  My own former student, John Prendergast, inspired AU graduates, this May, with the story of his oddessy from student to internationally recognized human rights advocate.

Surprisingly, both ICS student addresses rose nearly to that level.  The salutatorian’s presentation featured a video that showed pictures of each class member and highlighted positive qualities that made them distinctive.  The valedictorian presented a beautifully crafted speech that emphasized a timeless, fundamental message: the importance of being deeply grounded in ones own values and attending to one’s close relationships before embarking on crusades to change others and the world.  Her powerful content and delivery, I thought, struck just the right tone for graduates, faculty, relatives and friends.  Somehow she avoided the banality, platitudes and pretentiousness that graduation addresses on this theme so often convey.

This beautiful and moving graduation experience led me to reflect, once again, on the importance of human scale in educational processes.  ICS is a private school but not a wealthy one.  What it has to offer is a dedicated staff, backed up by a dedicated cadre of parents and grandparents.  It is grounded in a strong faith tradition, but but no means all of the students are evangelical Christians.  

Obviously major research universities, including my own, must serve classes much larger than twenty.  But the ICS experience poses a challenge for those of us, like myself, who are concerned about the need to engage with our students as unique individual human beings.  How can we recreate the affirming, empowering qualities that were so much in evidence at the ICS graduation in much larger settings?

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