Yesterday, my hopes for the future were given new life as I watched the
graduates of Booker T. Washington High School welcome the President of
the United States as their speaker. And this has nothing to do with
politics. I don't want to hear any snide remarks about the man or his
policies. No matter what you may think of him, he stood on that platform in the
same position as a parent or a teacher of those young people. He had asked floundering schools to join in a Race for the Top, and these were the winners. You
could feel the pride he took in them. They are truly an amazing group.
They've raised their graduation rate from 30% to 80%. They have some
of the highest math scored in the country. Some 70% of them are entering
college. All good -- all to their credit, no matter who they are. But
these are children of single parents, children who have lived their
lives in Memphis's worst slums, children of families with an average
ANNUAL income of less than $10,000.
Graduations usually make me teary-eyed. There's just something about watching all those fresh young faces as they walk up to claim the diploma that comes at the end of a successful course of study. They are proud and scared at the same moment--proud of finishing and scared of what lies ahead. As a teacher it is always hard to let go -- to send one's students out into the world, knowing that you have had your last chance to influence them.
But while I can remember the details of almost every graduation I attended as a faculty member at Rhodes College, I have to admit that I have little recollection of my own graduations. Oh, I remember that I didn't even show up to claim my master's degree. It wasn't a time of closure for me; I was just moving on to the next level. But high school? Nothing! College? I remember it was outside and infernally hot in August, which was my due punishment for finishing the four years in three and a half. But when the question arises, as it has repeatedly over the past weekend, I have no idea who the speakers were, let alone what they said. And what about that hooding ceremony at the end of the PhD? I remember my adviser didn't show up, which was normal for him, so some stranger took pity on me and draped that awkward bit of regalia over my head.
When you are the student rather than the proud teacher or parent, the graduation ceremony itself is just one more formality. For some reason I was unusually aware of how casually some students take the whole affair. I watched a film clip of this year's graduates at the college where I taught as they came filing out of the building where they had attended so many classes. They ran a gauntlet of faculty members, all in full academic regalia. The tower bell tolled, and as usual, the garden setting for the ceremony was awash with flowers. And all too many of the students were bored. My attention fell particularly on footwear. Below those new gowns, the young men sported grubby athletic shoes, and the young women slopped along in flip-flops. My overactive imagination immediately wondered how many pairs of pajamas lay beneath the academic get-up.
But not everywhere! The new graduates of Booker T. Washington High School came to their ceremony in their "Sunday best" as their principal had instructed them. They all wore dress shoes. They boys sported long-sleeved shirts and ties, with not a pair of jeans in sight. The girls wore dresses and heels. They stood tall and somber. This was no frivolous ceremony for them. More than one young lady cried when the President shook her hand and called her by name. On this day, they knew they had risen above any level they could have aspired to. They had accomplished the impossible to become the most improved high school in the United States. They were a credit to themselves and to their families.
They will remember today. And we will remember it too, remember it for the courage and hard work it took for these young people to say, "I accomplished the impossible."