The Circumstances of Pomp
Having graduated from high school last Thursday, my daughter and three of her friends thought it prudent to board an airplane for Paris this morning, lest someone decide to put them to work. Since my head was already spinning from all of the graduation events, I think she thought that it was a good time to get out of town, before I had a chance to really think about it.
It was somewhat surrealistic to see my daughter graduating down on the floor of the Erwin Center, in exactly the same spot where we watched Ernie and Bert and Big Bird in a Sesame Street Live production ,which seems like it happened very recently. There she was, up on the big screen, smiling and looking better than all of the other graduates, accepting her diploma and walking back down the aisle, completely finished with 13 years of public education. I appreciated the big screen. She had looked small down there in the same cap and gown the other 500 graduates had. I had finally picked her out when she was asked to stand for a couple of the honors she had achieved. Her name was prominently mentioned in the program and, for the most part of the evening, I stared at her name wondering if she was as proud as her mother and I were. I don’t see how she could be. These exercises are as much for the parents as the students.
Graduation has changed since I walked down the aisle of the old Houston Music Hall 37 years ago. They were quite formal and solemn things then. Placed in the Erwin Center, sitting in the same seats where you have cheered on the Longhorns, people become a bit more rowdy. Air horns were employed by proud parents to signal the joy (and relief) that Junior had made it through. Some folks had made masks of their kids head, taped to sticks which they then placed over their faces. When the orchestra played, they swayed the heads in time to the music. It was not quite the crowd you’d see at a professional wrestling match, but it was close.
The ceremony itself, like everything in the public schools, was wrapped up in politics. Down on the floor, handing out the diplomas, was the President of the School Board, with his $85 haircut. I think he sees bigger things on his horizon. I noticed that he hugged the daughters of some prominent developers. Then we had to hear from the superintendent, who gave a boilerplate speech that could have been written by a chimp, and perhaps was. I recalled a graduation of my wife’s where Barbara Jordan spoke with all of the eloquence she was famous for. I don’t recall her ending with the stirring quote that “the public schools are the backbone of America”, but then again, that was a long time ago, when a lot of people still knew how to speak to crowds.
The Principal of the school, performing his last duty, after being ridden out of town on a rail by a group of parents who though that he did not clearly understand the high schools traditions, was in an awkward position. He made the best of it by sticking it to those parents that had ousted him by referring to one of his sins. That sin was bringing a book to a football game. Horrors ! He told the students that if they had a book with them, they would always have a companion with them. Even at a football game. Good for him.
The strangest thing of all was seeing the kids, some of whom I’d known from the cradle, walk across the stage. There was the kid who used to pretend he was a cat ! There was the kid from pre-school, there were the kids that were in Stacey’s gymnastics classes and dance classes, and the ones she traveled all over the country with as a debaters. There was the gang she hung out with in middle school, the girls that had slept on her floor , all the ones who had been her companions and been discussed out our dinner table for all these years. Down there was the salutatorian, the kid I had sponsored for confirmation at Church. I always liked to point him out and tell people that I had “brought him to Christ” when, in fact, we sat around different area bars and he had to listen to my views on both the history and the future of Christianity. It was amazing that after all that that he still agreed to be confirmed. Also down there was the valedictorian, one of the great kids from the neighborhood, heading off to North Carolina to continue his studies and his fencing. I got a good look at his proud parents and thought of all the times his dad and I had worried about our kids as we walked our dogs in the mornings.
I hope that I will have these memories forever, the site of my daughter with all the medals around her neck, including the prestigious Henniger award for the top social studies student at the school (as voted by her teachers). It made me realize that 18 years of non-stop talking about history and politics had rubbed off on her. Her mother deserved most all of the credit for getting her through, but I would always claim the Henniger as my contribution.
I hope and trust that there will be other ceremonies for Stacey, many I hope to live to see. But there is something unique about the high school graduation. They walk on that stage( where Bert and Ernie once cavorted ) as children, and they walk off as adults. Adults capable of traveling to Paris without being under the watchful eye of the old man. God Bless them on their next journey, and God Bless those of us they leave behind,