This post by NCTE member Liz Prather is reprinted with permission from her blog Teach Like Everyone Is Listening.
I am a high school teacher, and during a normal year, the May insanity is, well . . . insane. I teach in a performing arts program, and there’s a whirlwind of end-of-the-year ceremonies, performances, shows and showcases.
In the first week in May, for example, my seniors’ parents host a literary arts banquet. We go somewhere special, eat a tasty meal together, and after dessert, all the seniors read a piece of their work. I give out awards, make a sappy speech, and we watch a slide show designed to make parents cry. We take pictures and go home satisfied that this is just the first of many good-byes before the final one.
Around the third week in May, we have another banquet for all the arts areas. It’s a giant, swanky affair at the Hyatt Regency downtown. The seniors and their parents dress up, we eat a great meal, and after dessert, two students, chosen by the faculty, give the keynote addresses. Then, we give out the SCAPA medallions, our director gives a sappy speech, we take pictures and go home satisfied that this, too, is another step toward the final goodbye.
In my class, we have another tradition: they sign the podium. I bring donuts for one last time, and they stand around the podium, reading what other writers have written in years before them and trying to sum up their experience in a witty epigram.
And then there’s prom. And the final play. And the final dance performance. And the final recital. And with each one of these ceremonies, it moves the seniors closer, bit by bit, to the one with pomp and circumstance, the final walk toward graduation.
In the week before graduation, our seniors practice their walk-in, sitting in the gym in rows, memorizing their assigned seats. Our principal and class officers write their speeches, the chorus and band practice their final performance, the senior class advisor and the counselors check and recheck the diplomas, stacked up in some secret location until they’re loaded up and transported to Rupp Arena.
And on that day, all the Lafayette seniors arrive in the back parking lot of Rupp off Manchester Street. Most get there early, ready to line up. Faculty, armed with bobby pins to secure mortar boards, take selfies and give out high fives. Then, in the hot, dark tunnel below the arena, the students wait for their turn to walk up into the light.
The faculty, in our black gowns and stoles, start the procession, leading our students in. There’s such a feeling of elation, a nervous, joyous chord that binds us all. When the graduating class steps onto the floor of Rupp, family and friends in the stands erupt into applause, screaming and cheering, amid screeching air horns.
If the high school experience is about anything, it’s about traditions, the familiar unfolding of the school year. And there’s that familiar assurance that after Spring Break, we’re hurtling toward the end, accelerated with each ritual, toward the passing of another class. Another crop of citizens is turned out into the world. In a normal May, there’s an approaching finality. We know it’s coming. We see the last day as it arrives.
For seniors, it is all held preciously in their hands. For teachers, who participate in this protracted goodbye every year, it is bittersweet, but it’s part of the rhythm of our world. The passing of another year is a comfort, an assurance that the world is tripping along as it should.
But this year none of that has happened.
None of it.
This Friday, under the slim overhang of the bus entrance sheltering us from a cold spring rain, I stood with the ten other SCAPA teachers and our director, masked, gloved and six feet apart, ready to see our students. Our seniors had been told we would be there to give out their graduation goods.
The first car appeared, and then another and another. Students and their parents lined up in their cars. We brought them their packets, stood outside their windows and posed for pictures. We clapped and waved. In the rapidly dropping temperature, we passed out yard signs, senior awards, medallions, scholarship checks, and diplomas. For two hours, we cheered and laughed and cried.
And then they drove off into the rain.
When I think of the countless hours of practice, the rehearsals, the drafts written, the feedback given, the early mornings and the late nights that artists and performers give to their craft, this ending—all our ceremonies stripped down to a hastily- snatched picture, a wet yard sign, a tearful goodbye through a car window—fills me with grief.
I grieve they were not just denied a graduation, but that their final build up was interrupted, their final bow never taken. One of my seniors recently wrote, “This was not the senior year we expected, nor the graduation we had hoped for, but in the end, it isn’t the graduation ceremony that matters. It’s the friendships we made, the lessons we learned, the community we built together over the last four years.”
I hope she’s right.
Because tonight I’m grieving. To those not involved in education, graduation and its loss may not seem profound; it’s just a long, drawn out ceremony after all. But it is much more.
It’s the opportunity to say good-bye. In a dozen different ways.
I wanted the Class of 2020 to have the chance to be bored by sappy speeches and eternal picture taking and crying parents and graduation practices and screeching air horns. I wanted them to have had the joy of enduring the May insanity, that I will never again take for granted.
Liz Prather teaches writing at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. She holds an MFA from the University of Texas-Austin and is the author of Project-Based Writing: Teaching Students to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose (Heinemann 2017) and Story Matters: Teaching Teens the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform (Heinemann 2019).