The Flowers of Graduation

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on June 16, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

Tis the season for high school reunions—I can tell by the sheer number of messages sprayed onto car windows with shaving cream and cake frosting. I need to see through my windows as I drive, however, so permit me to put my thoughts on paper instead.

To Graduating Students: Congratulations! As you stand in line to get your diploma, take a moment to remember that first frightened walk to your kindergarten seat so many years ago. How did you end up here, a refugee from an Elton John video, dressed in a frumpy gown and funny hat as you fuss over a tassel? You’ve come a long way, baby. Now, the bad news: you haven’t really learned anything important yet. High school teaches you how to learn, but the real world doesn’t care about the area of an isosceles triangle. Instead, now you’ll be expected to be open enough to learn what really matters. I like how Cambridge University puts this in perspective, referring to its graduation day as General Admission. That degree you just received is a ticket, nothing more. Which show you go to, and how much you enjoy it, is up to you. Choose wisely.

If you’d allow me to offer a bit of advice about handling this big day, I’d ask you to thank the family and friends that helped you get to this point.  Too often we wait for important occasions to show our full appreciation to the ones we love, then forget to do so amid the distractions of the day. It’s a sad reality that twelve years of full-time academic study for adolescents remains unattainable for most. Your family made sacrifices to provide you this opportunity; it’s their day, too.  That means that, yes, you have to kiss Aunt Marge. It ain’t pretty, but all of us had to do it. Besides, she doesn’t give you the card with the check inside until you do.

To Parents of Graduating Students: Congratulations! Now that he’s graduating, you’re “this close” to turning Timmy’s bedroom into a yoga gym. Before you send him off to college, though, you have to shepherd him through the events surrounding the commencement. Remember that part I wrote earlier about how graduating students should remember that it’s their family’s big day, too? Forget that. This is their day, even if you have relatives and friends coming from all over the country and you’re still scrounging for additional tickets to the ceremony. Bite your tongue when your kids say that today will be the most important day of their lives; let them bemoan that this will be the last time they’ll be with all their friends as a group again. Let them enjoy their pre-nostalgia with whatever hysterics they can muster.

Don’t worry that your kids will read this and neglect the advice I gave them earlier about thanking you: I find that students won’t read anything addressed specifically to their parents unless they’re worried about getting to the mailbox first around report card time. Still, give them a break and stop Aunt Marge before she gets to her third martini.

To the Community: Congratulations! As you pick up the newspapers in the coming days, take a moment to leaf through the pages dedicated to these high school graduation ceremonies. This is where your tax money went. Notice the sense of accomplishment on those smiling faces, the sense of hope and optimism that pervades the crowd. Look into the eyes of your future doctors, lawyers, teachers, and firefighters—your future taxpayers. There was a time when we questioned the need for such large amounts of money to be spent on their education, when we discussed cutting programs and services that we hoped would not affect them too much. We now see the flower of our efforts to maintain our budgets; like the Treasury bond given as a graduation gift, our investment has matured and stands to offer an excellent return.

Whether you have children in the school system or not, these are your kids. They are your neighbors, and soon you’ll be going to them to fix your car, your taxes, or your elevated blood pressure. These graduations represent a renewed commitment to opening the doors of opportunity to those better suited to solve the messes we’ve made. It’s obvious we adults don’t have all the answers. Some of these graduates might. After all, they know the dates of the War of Portuguese Succession, how to use the quadratic formula to determine the value of x, and how to label all the parts of a bacterium cell. Maybe they can rise above petty political allegiances and finally get us to work together for the common good. With hundreds graduating in the coming weeks alone, I like our odds.

As the Nelson Mandela once wrote, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” I truly believe the young men and women who will be throwing their hats into the air this week will accomplish great things. To my godson, Kevin, and all the graduates of the Class of 2011, I offer my heartiest congratulations… now, get to work! My 401k isn’t going to fix itself.

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