Saturday, June 3, 2017

Graduation Blues

I've attended enough graduations now to know that I'll walk away from the evening with a strange, gnawing feeling, an odd mixture of joy and sadness.  Of course, graduations are bittersweet events, as much farewells as they are celebrations, but I believe that for teachers, the emotion is more complex than "bittersweet".

Perhaps the feeling defies definition, but I'm going to attempt to pinpoint why graduation is such a strange evening for teachers, anyway.

First of all, it is vital to understand that teaching has an element of "wash-rinse-repeat" to it.  We arrive at graduation night, only to reset to the start of a new school-year in August, with a new group of students.  It's not repetitive in the way that the movie Groundhog Day is repetitive--we teachers learn and develop our curriculum from year to year; each class has a unique personality; job assignments shift... it's not as though each year is a carbon copy of the previous one.  Yet, the cycle itself repeats and becomes intensely familiar with each passing year.

Years ago, I wrote a blog-post about how with certain traditions, time seems to fold over itself rather than fly by.   Nowhere is this more evident than on graduation night.

The event itself doesn't change all that much from year to year.  Here is what one can expect at a CAJ graduation:

  • 40-55 students, clad in blue robes, will crowd around nervously in the school plaza, taking pictures with friends and family before the ceremony begins.
  • We teachers will line up at 6:45 in the hall near the academic office before filing into the gym just before 7.
  • The orchestra will play "Pomp and Circumstance" as the soon-to-be graduates march in.
  • We will start the ceremony by singing the CAJ alma mater.
  • The awards given out (and even the script for announcing the awards) remain largely the same.
  • We will sing the same hymn between the addresses by the student speaker and the staff speaker**
  • Five or six parents from the class will read the benediction in their native languages.  
  • Everyone will exit the gym to the same orchestral recessional piece, and the same frantic process of chair-stacking and table-moving will take place, to set up for the reception.

**When our current graduation coordinator took over the job several years ago, and replaced the hymn we had sung each year with another one, it was a jarring feeling at first, but even that "new" hymn has settled in as a comfortable tradition. 

The structure of the evening is consistent from year to year, and each graduation night is full of familiar beats.

What changes are the faces, and this is, I think, the main reason why graduation night packs such a strange emotional punch.

Past, present and future all collide on graduation night in a packed gym for a whirlwind three hours.

The Past--the alumni who return from university, or even possibly jobs of their own.  Some have younger siblings who are graduating, but most gravitate back to CAJ in the hopes of reuniting with old friends, catching up with favorite teachers, and for a brief moment, stepping back into a community that was home for part, or all of their childhood.  They return full of stories to share, but the time is scarce, and the reunion, brief.
Last night, I spoke with several former students who had graduated in 2013, one of whom had been in my class as a freshman during my first year of teaching.
One of them remarked, "This must be your eighth or ninth year, right?"
"Yep, this is my 9th CAJ graduation."
"Whoa, so you must have been really young when you taught us."
"Well, how old are you guys now?"
"That's how old I was when I came to CAJ."
My response was met with an odd combo of shock, amusement, disbelief, and "We're getting so old!"

I was also able to catch up with a few students who graduated last year, and who had finished their first year of university.  We wondered aloud where the past year had gone, as it felt like only yesterday that I had addressed their class from the podium as their commencement speaker (and singer!).

Outside the gym on my way home, I ran into a large group of alumni from the class of 2015 who were clearly delighted to be reunited with each other.  I wound up having a 20-minute conversation about the culture on college campuses in America and Canada before I realized that it was getting late, and I needed to go home.

I remember when these students were in high school, even middle school--it doesn't seem all that long ago--and enjoyed the opportunity to hear what they are up to now, however brief.  There's so much joy and satisfaction in hearing that your former students are thriving!

Nonetheless, I wasn't able to catch up with everyone.  I wasn't even able to say 'hi' to all of my former students who were there!  It was, for all intents and purposes, a glimpse into the past--a reminder of times gone by.

The Present--The students who transition from being seniors to being alumni at about 8:30 pm.  The honorees for the evening, it is downright impossible to have a real conversation or say an adequate goodbye in the packed and noisy reception.  The seniors scurry about taking final photos and hearing "congratulations" a hundred times or more before loading up onto the bus at 9:30 for a long drive to the beach to watch the sunrise--a tradition made possible by the Senior parents.  Although I miss each class, and each year, I struggle at first to wrap my head around the idea that they won't be around school each day anymore, I'm also filled with pride at what so many of them have accomplished and how so many have grown; filled with joy for the new adventure they are about to start.  Soon enough, they'll be "The Past"--part of the mass of alumni who flock back to CAJ for some future graduation for an all-too-brief reunion.

The Future--The Juniors--my current students, who, under the supervision of the PTA, are responsible for setting up for graduation, preparing and serving food, and cleaning up the gym afterwards.  In one year, they will be the ones graduating.  On Monday morning, I'll step into the classroom and they'll still be there--we have a couple days of class left to go before summer vacation officially starts.  However, I realize what they might not fully understand, that the next year will go by in a fraction of an instant, and soon, they'll be the ones walking across the stage.  Soon, they, too, will be part of the alumni throng.

Ask most teachers, and they will tell you that the school-year, as a whole, goes by very quickly.  In the blink of an eye, one year ends, the next begins, and the cycle continues at a break-neck speed.  The thing is, similar to the smooth velocity of a shinkansen, we don't realize just how fast we're going when we're in the thick of grading, prep, school-improvement, curriculum, collaboration and coaching.

Graduation night is where time catches up with us, where we watch life unfold in front of us, past, present and future, as though we were fast-forwarding through our favorite movie.

Maybe that's why I come home from graduation with a strange, gnawing feeling each year.  It's already starting to fade as I finish writing this post.
It'll come back, though, same time next year.

The lanterns are another tradition--a symbol of the passage of time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the recreation of memories and reflections! Marie Schraven