Packed House

Standing at the podium looking out over the crowd of parents, students, teachers, and families, I had second thoughts about the importance of promotion. I’d been dubious.

A friend had asked me what a promotion was. “Like a mini graduation?” he asked. “Sort of,” I answered. “But without reading all the names.” Others I know have been critical of the practice, arguing that commencement ceremonies marking the completion of high school or a college degree carry with them a justified weight, while elementary and middle school promotions lack the necessary gravitas (or fail in attempting it), and seem forced, cheapened by social promotion, and incomplete as they recognize the class, not individual students by name.

photo 2 (6)There, however, looking down at my speech, a brief page, I had the distinct feeling that promotion mattered.

Sure, it’s an invented affair. Thirty years ago the transition from 8th to 9th grade meant your mom saying “I think those jeans will make it another year.” And yes, the most meaningful celebrations are throughout the year and for specific accomplishments, academic and social. But…

When I saw the collective pride packed into our quad, and tightly packed at that, I realized that an event like this is special too.

There was some talk about where to hold our promotion ceremony. In the past few years it’s taken place, sensibly, on the lower athletic field, where wide open spaces are the trade off for scrubby grass, ugly vistas, and a long walk for the elderly and disabled. This year we moved the celebration onto the heart of campus, building the event around the permanent stage where our ASB holds lunchtime activities, and spreading parent seating out into every nook and cranny of the quad. At Diegueño parents have traditionally brought their own lawn chairs, keeping the atmosphere casual and the costs low.

Moving to the quad meant rolling the dice on how everyone would fit, but the payoff of a pretty backdrop, better disabled access, and collective intimacy was worth the risk. What I didn’t realize until I got up on stage and looked out over the crowd, was just how perfectly the scene served as a metaphor for Diegueño.

We were together. We were there to celebrate kids. We were close, closer than some might think they wanted, but only for a short time, and looking back on that time together we’d forget the discomfort and remember what it was like to be part of something greater than ourselves in service to kids and academic success.

After a quartet of 8th graders sang the national anthem, and did so with such talent that the crowd let out a collective gasp, six student speakers took to the podium. These students, so thoughtful, passionate, and honest, reminded us all that our hope in the future is well justified. Their speeches alone were proof a ceremony like this was important. Student voices, publicly acknowledged and heard by our school community, were the star of the show.

At a promotion, as opposed to the diploma distribution that drives a high school graduation, the focus can be on celebrating the hard work, the play, and the community built over our two years together. We can sit next to each other one final time, and as a school family we can acknowledge the tick of time that marks some kind of changing of the hour in the lives of the kids.

…and the lives of the moms and dads.

It’s for the families that this gathering together means the most. Students carry their own memories forward, and few, beyond those students who sang or spoke, will be of the ceremony itself. For the kids it’s the selfie on the bus ride to Disneyland, or the poem written to describe 8th grade with an extended metaphor that will mean the most when, a decade or two from now, they’re uncovered cleaning out the spare bedroom to make a nursery.

For the grandfather who walked into our office after the promotion ceremony searching for a program, however, it was something else.

We were able to give him a program, and as I think about that folded piece of paper hanging by a magnet on the fridge beside a photo of his thirteen year old granddaughter, I know that I’ll do everything in my power to make each of the promotion ceremonies I get a hand in feel special to the parents, grandparents and kids too.

For that grandfather, promotion mattered. He was there to celebrate his student, and to support her as she began the transition to high school. This was a day for him, for her, for her parents, and for the families of all our 8th graders. It was real. It was heartfelt. It wasn’t just a mini graduation.

Gathered together in Diegueño’s quad, the packed house felt more like a full home. Our collective school family was there together to honor the kids we’d spent two years together preparing for the next step in their young lives. We wouldn’t have another opportunity to all sit shoulder to shoulder, and for a little less than an hour, we could.

Graduations are about individuals reaching individual goals; promotions are about the passing from one phase of life to another. They’re about parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and students realizing that the awkward childhood of promotion’s wobbly wedges and ill fitting suits is too soon gone, and the future of mortarboards in the air is only a heartbeat away. It’s a final opportunity to hold our kids tight, embrace hope, and look collectively to the promise ahead.