Perhaps we should reclaim the old tradition of calling the day one receives a diploma Commencement Day. That seems to better define what that day means in the life of a new graduate.
We’re deep into the season of graduations. Proud parents and grandparents gather in stadiums or large indoor venues – or around a screen on an electronic device to watch daughters and sons, or grandkids, or cousins or siblings proudly walk across some stage to grab what is possibly an empty folder with a pledge of diploma to follow. Excited graduates toss hats high in the air. Excited families frantically search through the crowd after the ceremony to find their one special graduate. With cap back on head, the newly graduated poses patiently for “just one more.” It is a wonderful day in any family’s life.
One chapter of life has come to a close. A door opens to a future one. Some graduate with that path clearly marked and a map in hand to travel it. Others must wait. The next step is hidden behind a fog of great unknowing. They must take tentative steps into a transition that may last a few more weeks or perhaps months and even years.
The next step may lead them deeper and deeper into places they had never imagined themselves going. What lies ahead? A new job? A new place to call home? A new best friend? Perhaps even someone to partner with for the rest of life? The not having the details all worked out makes for some tense times.
The End is a New Beginning
Graduations were once called commencements. Graduations focus on the completion of a long, hard series of mandatory tasks completed. We should make a big deal out of graduations. They are important markers in life. There should be cake and caps, photos and friends and family gathered to celebrate.
But ‘commencement’ seems a more appropriate term for that day is the beginning of adventures unknown, traveled by paths not previously taken, toward a destination not clearly defined. Commencements mark not the end of learning, but the beginning of learning new lessons life will teach. Some of the lessons will be humiliating, embarrassing, discouraging, and leave the student feeling like a failure. Failure often proves to be a painful but productive lesson in what not to do again.
Trying in All the Wrong Places
Or, failure might mean that you’ve been trying to succeed in the wrong place or in the wrong way. I recently heard a radio talk show host respond to a question for a listener. The listener indicated interest in the course the radio host was promoting, but didn’t think he’d be successful because his high school years had been disastrous. He’d concluded he didn’t have the mental capacity to succeed in this course either.
The radio host (I never taught his name) referred to a quote by Albert Einstein. “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The radio host then spent several minutes emphasizing how school education is geared to learn in only one way. The methods used in most schools work well for some, are manageable for others, and a miserable misfit for others.
When a student doesn’t succeed according to standardized test scores and grade point averages, it might be because the student was in an environment focused on teaching him/her how to climb when what that student needed was swimming lessons. Maybe he didn’t do well in math class because he were focused on the new kid who seemed terrified being in a room of strangers and too busy calculating that kid’s fate to focus on calculus. Or maybe she was consistently late because she was the school good Samaritan who stopped to help other students pick up a pile of loose papers or find the right hallway to the next class. Maybe when the student scolded for daydreaming was thinking about the script for a new movie so there wasn’t any room left to absorb whatever the teacher was presenting that day.
Some people sail through school with ease and then struggle for the rest of their lives to make and maintain close friends. Some are the center of the social scene but can’t seem to hold down a job long enough to accumulate sufficient income to support themselves.
More Than One Path to the Finish Line
Learning is not a one-size fits all experience. Whether you graduated in record time or approached the Guinness book of world records for most years spent trying; whether you graduated at the top of your class or finished next to last, you did it. You completed a major milestone and deserve all the pomp and circumstance you can find.
Especially all the students who managed to complete the requirements for a degree through a pandemic. The class of 2021 and the class of 2020 form a unique group of graduates who persevered through a pandemic to reach Commencement Day. They are the first to claim such an accomplishment in literally a century. That alone makes each and everyone of them successful.
Congratulations. Well done. Carry on. We need your contributions to the many challenges before us today.
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