from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Tuesday May 30 our seniors graduated. I am writing this belatedly because I was very sick then and am still sick, taking my first sick day off from school in four years. But I would not have missed graduation, the chance to share with these wonderful young people. And I want to share with you who read my musing what it means to me as their teacher, coach, mentor, musical director and sometimes even friend.

In Prince George’s County, all the graduations are held in large public venues, in our case the Comcast Center at University of Maryland. Each year we graduate something around 700 students. In a number of cases the student will be thirst in her family to graduate from high school - this is especially true of some of our immigrant children, especially those from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, or some of those dislocated from Central America and parts of Africa. Thus on graduating student can mean as many as a dozen people watching the ceremonies.

We begin to arrive at 4 PM, for a ceremony that begins at 5:30. As is usual, my job is to help line up students. I have the second row of girls. My 14 students each has a cumulative GPA of at least 4.0 (we give weighted grades for Ap courses). Several are my former students, others I know from musical theater. All of my mine are present by the time we begin to depart from the gym at 5:15 -- we have some students who do not arrive until well after the ceremonies have begun, and we will add them to the rear of the seated students. Each student carries a card with her name on it, and how it is to be pronounced.

As they depart the gym we are checking them for gum (many have forgotten), taking cell phones and purses and flowers (they are not to carry anything), and giving tassels to those who have lost theirs. My work is now done and I can go upstairs to watch.

The people on the platform are a mix. We have the valedictorian and salutatorian, the class officers, administrators from our schools, the new schools CEO (equals superintendent), our speaker (who is an alumnus), and various political figures. The chair of the County Council is on stage because he son - whom I have both coached and taught) - is graduating. Most of these figures do not address the audience, but a representative of the Board of Education does speak (for far too long), and the CEO speaks (quite appropriately). We hear at various times from the different class officers, which is quite meaningful to me. The president was my student, I also taught her older sister, and for the past two years at her request I have refereed the student-faculty basketball game. The vice-president I taught and also had on my mock trial team, and she did one of the most memorable final projects I have ever received. She wants to make a difference in society and her goal is eventually to become a policewoman -- she is a brilliant student, and as one who believes in service I will not argue with her. The valedictorian was in the same class as the vice-president. At his request I did NOT show the video he made as his final project when he was a freshman, even though it is quite good.

In the past we have had some notables address our graduations. In the years since I arrived we have had the #2 at the CIA, the head of NOAA, nationally known sportscasting figure James Brown, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Last year we had a notable alumnus, Kenny Lattimore, who has received grammy nominations. This time we had another alumnus, who now writes for a local magazine. He was interesting because he was only a 2.6 GPA student when he was here, which put him in the bottom half of his class. But he had begun to develop a passion for writing. And he talked about following your passions and your dreams in a way that connected with many of the students, particularly because he had not been one of the top students in his class.

All of this is for me preliminary. If this were all would look forward to, I would have gone home to bed after the students departed the gym where we lined up. They now proceeded up onto the stage to receive their diplomas. Two teachers alternated reading the names, at a rate of about 13 students / minute. The students we go across the stage, receive a diploma casing and a handshake from the principal as the image of this was projected on the big overhead screen. A photograph was simultaneously taken. They would shake other hands on stage. The students did not go up and down steps, but we had had a ramp built for one student. Kelly is almost totally immobilized in a wheel chair. She can not dress herself, nor feed herself. Yet she has taken regularly classes, participated in choir, and this year we found a way to include her in the musical. Seeing her drive her wheelchair up the ramp and across the stage was something I did not want to miss.

The real importance for me is right after graduation. The students come out the back of the Comcast center to receive an envelope with their actual diplomas, and various certificates (for music, ROTC, athletics, and the like). And as I do each year, I stood just beyond to greet as many as I could. Some would come running over to hug me, some might not see me until I stuck out one hand for a shake or both arms for a hug. And the memories came flooding back. For most of these students I had taught them as freshmen, and it was amazing to she how much they had grown in 4 years, emotionally and intellectually as well a physically. But there were other stories as well.

Two young men I taught this year, both recent immigrants from Africa, came up together, thanking me for helping them get through the welter of information about US government. Both insisted on hugging me as they thanked me. Another young man whom I had once thrown off of JV soccer because of his behavior, and with whom there had been some conflict at the start of musical theater until he decided maybe I knew what i was doing came over to give me a great big bearhug.

I saw one young lady who got pregnant last summer. She stayed in class until the week before delivery, and came back one week after giving birth. I taught her last year, and could see that the experience of the unexpected pregnancy had in her case had a positive effect - she was determined to do all she could to be a good mother and a good role model for her child. She had grown up and gotten serious about her school work for the first time.

There were students who had been spectacular athletes or won various academic prizes (a graduating class of less than 700 won over 23 million in scholarships). There were students who were just plain terrific people, the kind of kid you delight in experiencing, regardless of their academic gifts.

And then there was L____ . I want to protect her privacy. She was a special case. As a freshman L____ began to tank academically in late January. I pulled her aside to ask what was going on and she told me that she had become suicidal, that she felt no one would listen to her. I am required by law to notify the counseling staff in such a situation, and told her of this. She said she had been to her counselor, I could tell him, and it wouldn’t make any difference, because she couldn’t talk to him or the psychologists to whom she had been sent. She asked if she could talk to me, just to have one person she trusted. I told her I would have to inform her parents and her counselor that we were doing this (and we would do it only by email, not by phone), and she was amenable. Even with the clearance from family and counseling, had anything gone wrong I knew I could lose my teaching certificate. But a student had cried out for help, and turned to me, and I could not say no. For the next two months we exchanged many emails, sometimes tow or three a day, sometimes nothing for a week. By early May she had her feet back on the ground and was beginning to turn her academic around. But her total performance was so bad in 3rd quarter that she was expelled from our science and tech program and was being sent back to her home high school. Her counselor and I both intervened, because we knew that absent the supportive environment she had experienced in her period of trouble she might regress, and we were able to get her readmitted to science and tech by mid-September. She graduated with a cumulative GPA of around 3.4, but the important thing was that she was able to finish with us. She rarely had to turn to me in her final 3 years -- usually when I saw her she would flash a blinding smile.

So perhaps you can understand that when L___ came over to me to hug me, both of us had tears. It was an important completion for both of us.

As teachers we challenge, we provoke, we demand, we cajole, we console, we admonish, and occasionally we instruct. The we hold our breaths and hope that the effects we have had are positive. At graduation all things now seem worthwhile, we can quietly rejoice that our young people are ready to move on without us. Many will write or email us while they are in college or the military. Many come back and visit when home from their post-secondary endeavors. But this day marks a change in our relationships, because although we may be asked for further recommendations, we no longer have a responsibility for the student in the way we did when they were in our care. We begin to move in the direction of a friendship, if that is what the now-former student desires. If not, we can be satisfied that we helped them to get this far, and let them go.

I am home sick today, and per the doctor will also be home again tomorrow. Perhaps I should not have gone to graduation on Tuesday - but as ill as I felt, perhaps you can understand why it was important for me to do so.

Think back on your own high school graduation. And if there is a teacher who really meant something to you that you never did properly thank, perhaps this musing might prompt you to make a call or drop a note. As a teacher, I am always delighted to hear from former students, and would expect your former teachers would be delighted to hear from you.

Have a great day.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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