Saturday, June 07, 2008

Graduation Audiences

(News-Herald, June 5) A graduation, particularly a high school graduation, is one of those activities that requires an audience even though the audience has no real purpose.

It’s a sliding scale. On one end we have funerals, where the central participant is well beyond caring about the quantity or quality of the audience. On the other end, we have, say, high school sports where the audience is still unnecessary, but their quality often matters to the main performers.

A bride and groom could tie the knot just as permanently in a small room alone with a preacher and maybe a witness. And a graduate would still be a graduate if the diploma arrived in the mail. Yet both events are traditionally staged publicly so the community at large can recognize a big change in the central character’s life. We don’t just want to make a change; we want everyone to know.

So an audience at graduation is a must. That’s part of the point of graduating a whole group all at once—each individual is guaranteed an audience for his official transition.

There are a few rules for all participants to observe.

First, the graduates have a responsibility to each other. You may think it would be cool to release a hundred paint-covered weasels during the ceremony, and if you were graduating alone, you’d certainly have that right. But while you may be happy making a mockery of your own commencement ceremony, you have no right to make a joke out of someone else’s special day.

It’s good to practice this restraint. Someday you may have the urge to stage some silliness at your own wedding without consulting your fiance; a moment of restraint may prevent a honeymoon alone on the couch.

Most graduates behave pretty well at the ceremony. It’s their friends and family who need some training.

It’s beyond simple rudeness. Johnny, wrapped in cap and gown, hears his name read. For one brief moment, he will be center stage, a world of people focusing on him in recognition of what he has accomplished. And then someone hollers.

It doesn’t matter if they holler “Hey Johnny!!” or “Woot woot—we rule” or some inarticulate bellow. What they’re hollering translates simply as “Hey, look at me!” At the very moment when Johnny should get to be the center of attention, some alleged friend tries steal that attention away from him.

It is true that some folks are so overcome with joy that they just have to holler. But here’s a simple test you can perform at any graduation you attend:

First, check your clothing. Are you wearing a cap and gown? Second, check your family records. Did you personally participate in the conception, birth, or rearing of the graduate in question?

If the answer to both these questions is “no,” then this graduation ceremony is not about you, and you should probably just shut up.

The crowd is always asked to hold applause till the end, not just for the above reasons. A family should not miss Junior’s name because the previous student’s cheers drowned it out. And nobody should have to remember graduation as the day that everyone else got more applause than he did.

Graduation should be a joyous occasion, an event for celebration, certainly not a dull, lifeless ceremony. But it is not a football game or a NASCAR event; some dignity and respect are called for. Throwing gifts, taking and sharing embarrassing photos, screaming pet nicknames—these are all fine activities for the graduation party, not the ceremony.

Weddings are a fine model. Quiet dignity during the ceremony. Respectful tomfoolery afterwards in the designated area. And even that tomfoolery has limits—you can certainly join in throwing rice or bubbles or organic tofu cubes at the couple. But jumping in front of the bride and yelling, “Pay attention to me!!” is never cool.

Our graduates have accomplished one of life’s special little milestones. By all means, take the chance to show support and appreciation. Yes, commencement comes close to being boring. Yes, the party afterwards involves many people you neither know nor like. But the point of graduation stuff is not to make you feel important or entertained. It’s to give the graduate a moment to be recognized and respected, a day that feels special because so many people have gathered around. If we can remember, for just a few hours, that it’s about them, it will be a better day.

1 comment:

Nick said...

The more graduation ceremonies I attend, the more i think it's like a sports game. I am surprised someone doesn't have multiple cars rigged to the panic button on their car keys and click it when a certain someone gets up there. There seems to be mixed opinions with students on graduation. Some would rather just stay home and play Halo 3 while they wait for their diploma come. Others actually cherish the last moment they are in their class with all the familiar faces. Looking back, I was probably thinking more about my ceremony the year after than during the real thing. Graduation is almost surreal.

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