(originally posted 2016)
It’s graduation time. Mailing announcements, “last events ever,” relatives coming into town, and graduation parties with potato salad, deviled eggs and sheet cake. Some parents are tearfully assembling collages of embarrassing baby pictures, and other parents are quickly packing up their senior’s possession in boxes in eager anticipation of a long-awaited craft room or man cave.
It’s also time for commencement ceremonies: the caps and gowns, allocating graduation tickets to family and friends, and the comfortable predictability of graduation ceremonies with speeches and the calling of names.
As principal I have the honor of handing our students their diploma, and a privileged view of the moment when they graduate from our school. I see them in line as they seen their classmates in front of them receive their diploma. I see them at the bottom of the stairs as they listen intently for their name to be called. I see how their excitement turns to nervousness as they climb the steps, worrying about tripping over the graduation gown and perhaps regretting wearing anything other than flats.
As they reach the stage, they turn to locate the person holding their diploma, and everything slows down for a moment. Their eyes shine with a mixture of relief, pride, and joy. They start to break into a smile, and as an educator I see the effort and growth it took to get to this moment, while as a parent I see a son or daughter who is now proud of being grown up and ready to go out into the world.
It’s precisely at that moment, only a couple of times out of several hundred names being called, that someone decides to yell something unintelligible, but loud enough to distract everyone.
And every single time it’s happened, I see the student visibly wince. At the moment where they should be enjoying the accomplishment, they are visibly embarrassed by someone who just couldn’t stand to let the graduate have their own moment.
It’s a measure of our students that every one of them feels compelled to apologize: “I’m sorry, Mr. Curtis,” and I tell them, “You’re OK.”
I don’t ever say, “It’s OK,” because it’s not OK. But the student is OK.
The student is OK because they know that it’s inappropriate. They know that it’s selfish of a guest to try and steal the moment, and they want me to know that it doesn’t reflect how the student feels about the school. They also know that it’s not fair to the next student.
That subsequent graduate, who has spent four years in the alphabetical lineup next to them, matters to them. They may not be best friends or have participated in all the same activities, but I love that our students truly care about that person behind them. They know that no matter whether school came easily or was a difficult struggle for that student, they deserve to have their own moment.
And our students know that this disturbance takes something away from the moment when that next classmate’s name is called, when her parents are listening carefully for their child’s name – a moment they’ve waited for over the last 18 years.
They’re embarrassed when one of their relatives takes that moment to make it about themselves, rather than the graduates. They’re embarrassed because it doesn’t reflect the ceremony, the hard work they’ve done to get to this moment, and the community they have grown to love over their four years. They’re embarrassed because it takes something away from another student.
So when we ask everyone to hold their applause, it’s really not about a rule, or power-hungry administrators trying to control an event; rather, it’s the hope that every one of our guests at graduation can remain silent during the calling of names so that they can experience the sacred privilege of being witness to a truly beautiful moment that every student, and their family, deserves.