Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Graduation in Zion

One of my favorite reggae songs is called "Graduation in Zion", by Kiddus I. It is, essentially, a singing of the Lord's Prayer blended with other lyrical stylings. Rastafari encouragement to keep pressing forward, knowing that one day our work will pay off, and we will find yourself at the promised land, which in Rasta is known as Zion.

Last week, two graduation experiences in two days in our family showcased a dichotomy of worlds similar to that which John Edwards talks about when he speaks of Two Americas. That they are in fact real worlds in America is missed by most. That they are in fact equal paths to Zion may be missed by all.

The first graduation was my son's graduation from high school. My son, being my son, took his own path in life from early on despite being taught "all the right things", and decided that, in the end, he was simply not Into High School TM. After years of internecine warfare with his mama -- who admits to an educational elitism following 12 years of admittedly elitist education -- his mama lost. So, my son sat for his GED with no study after the functional equivalent of a year and a half in a high school classroom. He passed it with scores that prompted the comment from school administrators that he had "wasted a brilliant life" at the ripe old age of 18.

Because my son went to Continuation School, he was eligible for and (with some minor arm twisting) elected to participate in the school's formal graduation ceremony, joining 200 other children who had also taken alternate paths, many of them through jail, drug abuse, homelessness and teen parenthood. It is telling that this is so, yet all of them nonetheless still chose to go through one of the basic Rites of Passage in our culture - High School Graduation. (It is testament to the fact that even the rebel still has roots, somewhere, that call them to tradition even when they say they reject it.)

His graduation ceremony was most notable for its subrosa theme: The children who nobody really expects Will Make It. Yes, the traditional caps, gowns, balloons and flowers were all in abundance, the snapping cameras. They were brought by largely black and brown, and a few white, faces. But far less hoots, hollers and tears of pride than I am used to in commencement, even in the case of those children who were given the honor of speaking, and who told stories of their triumph that truly should have left us all saying "There but for the Grace of God Go I". The bilingual ceremony was largely the giving of scholarships - an hour and a half's worth of them - to kids who were going directly on to community college. They were modest: $250 here, $500 there. That the school gave away $37,000, largely to the same 10 children, was celebrated. Leslie Griffith of KTVU News spoke, having created a $5,000 scholarship fund for young mothers graduating from the school and going on with their lives. She told a story of her own adversity largely notable for the fact that she had not a clue what some of these kids were actually facing in Real Life (sorry, but a young mother who finds herself suddenly husbandless and having to work while still able to remain at and graduate from her good college is not exactly facing the same type of adversity as kids savings money to get their gang tattoos lasered off so that they can truly leave behind their past).

So little was actually said about the kids themselves, how far they had traveled to sit with their regalia - the same regalia worn with just as much pride across town at the four-year high schools. Graduation appeared to be, essentially, an hour and a half of watching pundits being introduced to give their scholarships to 10 of the 200 kids, and 5 minutes from the principal filling in as a commencement address for the other 195, punctuated by the Caltrain roaring by every 15 minutes across the railroad tracks next to which the modular building continuation school resides. The only glimmer of the love and pride that is supposed to accompany graduation was the was the Presentation of the Class, in which each child was introduced not only by name, but with three adjectives to describe him or her as they strolled across stage to shake the obligatory hands and collect their obligatory scrolls.

(In the case of my son, it was "smart, funny, and handsome." I deliberately ignored the feminine hoots of "Yeah he sure is!" I heard emanating from the sea of black caps and gowns at the "handsome part. I sleep better at night, attention from way too fast young women being my son's personal Waterloo at the moment. Yet with his kente cloth Class of 2005 drape, he was indeed one fine young brother..../sigh)

5 minutes of official well-wishes, for 195 children who had in most cases were graduating only because they'd beaten bad odds, drugs, teenage pregnancy, juvenile hall (or in some cases outright jail), homelessness, neglect, hunger or worse. But where was their "message about life?", the hallmark of every high school graduation? The speech that all of us remember resenting while we sat sweltering in our cap and gown but which we would never admit nonetheless called to us and inspired us towards our future? What does it say when that is largely absent? Does that mean they are not expected to have a future? That the graduates were instructed that they could not "be loud" or even to engage in the traditional frolic of tossing their caps in their air spoke volumes - even as now men and women, the larger society, the official society, still treated them not as men and women who had passed through one of life's stages, but as out-of-control problem children to always be controlled, else they Get Out of Control.TM.

Directly from this experience, because my son wanted to celebrate his graduation dinner as a family, we left there to begin our journey down I-5 to SoCal, where the Eldest Baby Girl was graduating the next afternoon from UCLA's Theatre, Film and Television School - one of only 30 undergraduates studying film in a program whose department head publicly admits to efforts to completely eliminate the undergraduate program on the grounds that it is worthless. (According to my daughter, the fact that an enormous percentage of the films receiving awards this year were made by undergraduates seems lost on the department at this time.) Sitting in the heart of Westwood, UCLA's TFT graduation stage was a vision of flowers, balloons, perfectly manicured lawns, ivy draped walls, and Hollywood fame in the person of Anthony Hopkins and Faye Kanin, both of who spoke at Commencement.

The graduates? The usual stock - except for the nosejobs that were the hallmark of each of the undergraduates leaving the "Theatre" arm of the TFT school. (I can see them on the silver screen already, doing revivals of the psuedo-Busby Berkeley song and dance numbers we were all "treated to" as part of graduation. Joy.) The Eldest Baby Girl, determined to have none of this sing and dance path despite a stunning physical beauty, is of the "F" arm of the TFT School - Film. Her successful experimental directorial path is already set in stone by a fierce artistic eye, a damned near Deans' List GPA, steadfast refusal to trade her sexuality for the right to express her intellect, and the fact that despite being 5'1 she can both belch like a sailor and is more than happy to cuss a 6'4 sailor blue to get done what she wants done when she wants it done.

Watching her graduate was an exercise in the familiar. Yes, the hoots, hollers, flowers and balloons were in also in abundance. The difference was that this time, everyone knew The Rules of Graduation. We were a well-oiled machine, operated seamlessly by those who all knew what to do, when to do it, including when to snap photos and when to stay behind the ropes dividing the processional path from the teeming Masses of Deliriously Happy (and Financially Relieved!) Parents. TM. And yes, as is their right the world over, the graduates who frolicked and misbehaved right on cue and ignored their parents and planned after parties at the extremely posh reception, with absolutely no regard for the fact that someone had just spent $80,000 plus on educating them.

Perhaps it is because, unlike the 195 I'd seen graduate the day before, these children -- like most graduates the world over -- knew with certainty that, in graduating, they had EARNED IT. Whether or not they actually had, since as the cream of the crop of an elite educational institution, many of these children had much of their way smoothed for them in advance, through just the right educational path, money, connections - all of the privileges those who are privileged, in one way or another, can offer their children. They felt entitled to party, entitled to celebrate, entitled to shout "Hell YEAH", as they embraced their right of passage, from their earliest adulthood into that largest phase in which they will go make their mark on the professional world.

Yet so had my son's class. In some ways, more so. There is no question that each and every young man and woman that graduated with him - whether with a full high school diploma or a GED, going directly to community college or instead simply taking a job - had WORKED. Worked HARD. Against the odds. And in some cases, alone and frightened, yet still determined. Against a system and sometimes even parents that truly did not expect them to survive, let alone graduate from high school and begin their own lives. Frankly, had these kids decided that they wanted to celebrate by stopping freeway traffic with a parade doing the Running ManTM or Cabbage PatchTM (or whatever it is young people dance, these days) that would have been their due - because the traditional graduation photos sitting on their parents' mantle are a testament of youthful will overcoming the odds. Of the boulder being pushed uphill, and successfully shoved over. They had truly earned the right to their tassels, running a far harder gamut than most who were sitting in the beauty of the UCLA graduation setting.

Which children have worked harder? No one can fairly say, of course, because one man's burden is another man's holiday. And the work we do at one life stage is not comparable to that which we do at others. And of course, we don't always know the backstory of a student's life, and perhaps sitting with my daughter was a man or woman who had also struggled to make it. Yet juxtaposing the two experiences of graduation in my single family, it is clear that we indeed live in what John Edwards refers to as Two Americas. One in which the feedback for hard work is adultation, reverence and privilege. In the other, sighs of relief and reminders that they are still "not quite the same" as those who follow the traditional path.

Yet both Americas are our future, when we are talking about our young adult men and women. No matter which America they come from, the work of the young to make their way is the greatest work they do, regardless of where they go to school, where they graduate from, or who gives them applause. They deserve our pride, our support, our love, and our never ending belief in them. Our hearts should sing for those like the 195 who may still have to struggle as much as for the 30 who will likely cruise to success, but who might leave their high school graduations feeling that it was all for naught in the eyes of that larger world who will judge them. But too often, they don't. And that is something we should all be ashamed of, and work to correct.

Regardless of what America your graduate may come from, however, it seems to me that Kiddus I has the same wise advice:

Keep the faith, my brothers and sisters,
It's the cross that you bear,
And Fear Not, sayeth Jah Lord,
Whatsoever man soweth,
They all will reap the fruits of their labors,
Yes they will,
In the end.

To all our Graduates in Zion (including my own two) know that out there, somewhere, someone is very very proud of you. And has your back, no matter which path you took to Zion.


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