This June across America, as the early summer wind carries through open windows the trills and chirps of tiny colorful birds, adults will be setting out rows of butt-breaking metal chairs in middle school gyms everywhere. The halls will sparkle with a hundred smartphone camera eyes, grandparents will have hankies at the ready, and finally a giggly gaggle of young adolescents will be hushed, lined up, and marched one by one for a commendation of epic proportions: jointly and severally the kids, their parents, and the teachers will ensure that congratulations, praise, and encomia are doled to all in equal and massive proportions.
I won’t be attending.
The previews have been insufferable: the last night of the school play, fifty long minutes of accolades and endorsements for kids who just pulled off thirty minutes of acting. The giving of flowers, the drama teacher dabbing a tear from the corner of his eyes, the special and specific attention to the brilliant talent and phenomenal energy, and none of this would happen if so-and-so hadn’t done such-and-such, and a special thanks to the bit players, and the time someone went to the hardware store for something, and now we’re down to the crossing guard who every day makes sure our children make it through the intersection, let’s give her a standing round of applause.
First off, unless a disability or handicap has been valiantly overcome, graduating from 8th grade is not an accomplishment. It is the bare legal minimum that requires mostly just attendance. Congratulations kids! You showed up because you had absolutely no choice, learned skills that almost all of you can easily master, left behind little of lasting value to others, and in the process neither blood nor tears nor sweat were shed.
It’s the parents who deserve to be celebrated most, day after day for eight grueling years they managed to avoid a visit from a truancy officer or malnourishment or neglect charges that stick. Let’s hear it again for the tireless parents: captaining 10,000 pound SUV’s that are armored up more than the personnel carriers used by tropical armies, delivering their kids ten yards from the school entrance with full tummies, clothing on their backs, and nary a switchblade. Of these unsung heroes, sing O Heav’nly Muse.
Last but not least, the teachers and staff: dedicated and focused professionals without whom, along with sanitation workers, dental hygiene assistants, tax auditors, radiation safety advisors, diesel mechanics, art critics, warehouse engineers, landscapers, vintage store owners, homeless advocates, rear admirals, and forest rangers, modern life would be un-worth living.
Here’s a better idea: instead of an 8th grade graduation ceremony, let’s be honest and hold a funeral for the American childhood. Like a migratory finch long harried from its natural habitat, the curiosity, passion, and spontaneous joy of the human child has already been hounded down to few remaining sanctuaries. You see these gangly fourteen-year-olds poking each other and laughing, asking stupid questions, breaking minor rules for the wrong reasons, and it’s like catching sight of lovely yellow finches, flitting about in a single tree in a tiny park surrounded by one hundred square miles of asphalt-lashed consumerist compounds. Their extinction is assured.
We gather here today to mourn the passing of your wandering days. Since your parents and elders had their entire lives to think about this and came up with nothing better, it has now been settled that there are no values more worth your life’s energy than money and temporal success. To help you achieve those goals, your head is about be locked in a pneumatic vice of testing and evaluation, which will scientifically squeeze out a precise answer to the question of how well you take tests and submit to evaluation. Have a great summer kids!
I have in mind a better way for young adolescent to spend a day in June than a pointless celebration or mock funeral.
Get out of the house, and don’t come back until it’s dark.
That’s right. You got your keys? Phone? Bus pass? A few dollars? Is the weather somewhere in a habitable range between say 40 and 90 degrees, with no immediate forecast of tornadoes? Are armed jihadists known to be on the loose right now, in this very city, taking young hostages? No? Good.
Be gone from the sight of caring adults. Go, and unless it’s felonious or imperiling of life and limb, nobody cares what you’re going to do.
What would a kid do with a mandate like that?
Take a train somewhere? Sit under a tree for hours twilling blades of grass with his toes? Wind up in a library reading Portnoy’s Complaint? Score a pack of Camels and try to learn how to smoke under a bridge? Skip stones and wonder what it’s like to kiss a girl? Place assorted objects on a rail track and enjoy the unbridled pleasure of watching a three-dimensional object become two-dimensional when a train roars through? Send his buddies into peals of laughter with the poem about the man from Nantucket? Break into a junkyard and build a fort? Swim naked in a pond?
It doesn’t matter. When young sir (or miss) comes home, there will be no test reviewing the day, no numerical assessment of how enriching it was, no inventory of proficiencies gained.
Oh, you’re home? Nice to see you again. Dinner’s in the fridge, the dishes in the sink need to be done. Ask your brother if he brushed his teeth.
What if the entire summer were like that? Two whole months in a critical phase of young adult development, with not a single parent or institution having a clue what’s going to happen, and nobody bothering to ask at the end how it went. The unavoidable risk of course, is that in this summer of freedom book-ended by middle school and high school, a youngster might wind up accidentally learning something worth knowing. The further danger is he might remember how he learned it.
Come end of August, they slide into their freshman year desks at the new school, and are told if they hustle hard now, in two years they could qualify for AP Whatever, and if they do exceedingly well in that, they could move on to AP Whatever II, and if that goes great, colleges will take a kind view and perhaps find a slot for you at the usual usurious rate and you can go on to specialize in Whatever Studies, which will having nothing to do with your future career in Something Else, which you better work hard at because the degree in Whatever Studies cost more money than it would take to provide Sub-Saharan Africa with internet access for a century.
I won’t be sitting on those tortuous metal folding chairs. Some other, mightily important commitment will fall not just on that day but those specific hours. The moment the graduation is over my schedule will miraculously clear. If the weather’s nice maybe I’ll take my son out to the bird sanctuary on Lake Michigan, some sort of blue and white migratory warbler usually shows up in June. Or maybe it’s a finch.
Or do they appear in May? We don’t have a birdwatching book. We might spend the whole afternoon out there and not even see an interesting bird, or we might just plain forget to look. In any case, it will be an afternoon unburdened by the illusion that accomplishments matter.
Daniel Sherman is an entrepreneur and writer who divides his time between Chicago and Italy. He is currently developing a book on ethics for adolescents, Good Enough.
Copyright 2017 The Moderate Voice