Graduation: A Rite of Passage

2014-12-18 07.40.43By Steven Fryling

So we find ourselves once again in “graduation” season; a time when young people are excited and anxious about what is to come and the older among us wistfully consider the scope of a person’s life and what these things mean, often while sitting under a canopy in a backyard somewhere, munching on ham sandwiches and graduation cake.

So what does a “graduation” mean?  Nowadays, schools have graduations anywhere from preschool or kindergarten graduation to middle and high school graduation, to college graduation, as well as graduation from various programs or activities. I have heard retirement referred to as a graduation. Perhaps at these events, a gold watch is the substitute for a diploma. At a recent funeral for a relative, I was told she “graduated” to the next level as well.

Perhaps it is best not to think of the idea of graduation as a ceremony and more as a rite of passage, a milestone or reflection point in life. As an educator for 33 years, I have seen many of my colleagues retire, which happens at the same time as high school graduation. I have observed with them that these times are like the “bridges” in life; you are on the highway and you go over a bridge, but it is at the bridge you look out the car window and admire the view. While most of the days of a life are filled with seeing just what is ahead on the road in front, a bridge invites you to look from side to side and say, “what a great ride.”

Being an educator, I have heard more graduation speeches than I care to count. I even gave one once. I always like Charlie Glaes’ speeches, delivered at Vicksburg’s graduation. While typical remarks note what is ahead and behind the graduates, Charlie also makes us look from “side to side” as the students cross the bridge and helps us enjoy the ride.  I have noted that he makes similar remarks at retirement ceremonies, which I find fitting.

Let’s face a fact; high school graduation and a diploma no longer mean what they used to mean. When I was a kid in the 70s, graduation was, for many, the last stop on the journey in formal education. Folks went on to work at Upjohn and Fisher Body and Continental Can (none of which exist anymore). Today, high school graduation is a place where many young people figure out that they are only part way to the goal of sustainable employment and the “American dream” lifestyle; it is simply a first step toward a degree or training in certificate, or the military, or a trade school or apprenticeship.

So what’s the takeaway here? In our culture where we have no ceremonial rite of adulthood (unless you are Jewish, Hispanic or Native American), we often thrust high school graduation into this role. To me, this time of year for many 17-19 year olds serves a mighty purpose. While it no longer declares students ready to enter most job fields, it does demand that we all step back, look side to side, and admire the only journey that we are ever going to be on.

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