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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 20, 2011

Ceremony has worth when work is done

In modern America, few community ceremonies survive. One of them is high school graduation. So it’s important to get it right. It not only marks the accomplishments of the graduates but, as so many graduation speakers have said over the years, it is a commencement — a beginning, the start of a new life for graduates leaving home, striking out on their own.

The Guilderland School Board is now in the midst of revamping its policy on graduation. While many school districts allow only students who have completed all of their course work to don caps and gowns, Guilderland has traditionally let about 5 percent of its graduating class that haven’t met requirements — students who need to complete summer school courses in order to earn their diplomas — participate in commencement exercises in June.

“A number that have walked across the stage didn’t fulfill their requirements,” said Barbara Fraterrigo, who heads the policy committee, when the board discussed the matter at a recent meeting. “I don’t think you want to encourage that.”

Board member Richard Weisz countered, “To me, it would be sad to have 20 students a year not walk across the stage.” He said it is “wonderful for all these families…to participate in one of those life milestones.”

The board reached consensus that leaving three courses to complete was a physical impossibility since a student can take only two in summer school, but opinions varied on whether it should be one or two courses, and on how to phase in the new requirement.

Board member Denise Eisele, an ever informed and steadfast advocate for students with special needs, said that her daughter had been in Learning Workshop, which offers remedial help, and so, to take electives, she had to take two summer classes after graduation, which she had planned on in advance and successfully completed.

Under the policy proposal of just one course, Eisele said, “My daughter’s heart would have been broken if she hadn’t been able to go with her class.”

No one wants to see a student’s heart broken. And it certainly would be unfair to switch the policy after students had planned on extra courses after graduation.

But, drawing on our own personal experience as Eisele drew on hers, we wonder if the board has considered holding a separate graduation ceremony in August.

Our elder daughter graduated from Cornell University one bright June day. The crowd on that festive day packed the football stadium. Spectators had to use binoculars to identify their graduates on the playing field. There was no recognition of individuals. As the name of each college was called, the graduates, en masse, stood for applause, and were seated. A number of years later, that same daughter earned a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine from Cornell. She and her classmates were at least visible at that June ceremony because they brandished long inflated gloves, designed for wearing while conducting rectal exams in cows.

Our younger daughter also graduated from Cornell, but mid-year. Some of the graduates in that commencement ceremony had finished their courses a semester early; others had taken a semester longer. Our daughter had studied abroad and took time to travel in the midst of her college career. By contrast, her ceremony was an intimate one. Each graduate was handed a diploma by the college president. Family members could not only see the graduates but could hug and talk to them as well.

We’ve enjoyed covering the Guilderland graduation ceremonies over the years. A lot of care goes into the speeches, the music, and the videos. We were pained last year to print a letter from a graduate’s parents, complaining that they couldn’t even hear, midst the din, their student’s name called in the athletic center where the ceremony was held. “From our heavenly and very uncomfortable bleacher seats (awful for the age 80-plus grandmothers with us), it was impossible to tell who was who on the floor or on the stage…We wanted more than anything to hear his name called and see him receive his diploma,” they wrote. “Alas, we were left extremely disappointed, and more than a little bit angry, on a day we were supposed to feel elated.”

Certainly, Guilderland’s graduation is more personal than that at a large university.

But there is something to be said for a small ceremony that warmly recognizes those August graduates who have, indeed, completed their requirements. There would be no tension, no worry about whether the courses would be completed. There would be celebration, pure and simple for genuinely reaching a milestone in life.

We recently attended our 40th Guilderland High School reunion. Forty years ago, when classes were larger than they are now, the ceremony was held on the school’s football field: Parents filled the bleachers, and the graduates — the girls still wore white caps and gowns and the boys wore red — sat in folding metal chairs on the field. Few of the classmates I talked to remembered who spoke that day let alone what they said. What they remembered was the joy and pride their families felt in their accomplishment.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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