Thursday, May 22, 2008

Triumph of Selfish Cynicism at Graduation

This is one of those homegrown cancers that worries me more than al-Qaeda or Chicoms or any outside threat.

I'm told it started about 10 years ago. At graduation, Creighton Prep students fling small rubber balls at classmates as they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas from the school president, a priest. In some cases, it's a barrage of dozens of balls raining down on the student and Father President.

The first half of the ceremony was great. In his opening remarks, the principal urged proper respect and decorum, noting that many people (including my brother-in-law) traveled a long way to see a loved one graduate. The student speakers were excellent. But it's pathetic when graduates have to duck and dodge their way across the stage (one was hit in the eye) to receive their diplomas, and the president of the school is reduced to a sheepish grin as he tries to snare balls with his free hand to avoid being hit in the face.

It had all the class and dignity of a session by Gallagher the comedian smashing melons and leaving the stage a mess, only in this case the stage was littered with rubber balls of various sizes and colors.

It's the selfish cynicism that grates and exasperates.

There are many things about Prep -- academic, athletic, spiritual -- that make it special. You can't judge a school by one moment.

But graduation is a big, revealing moment. There is a lot of rhetoric about brotherhood at Prep, a lot of talk about the qualities of character a young man should have when he leaves Prep. There is something fundamentally wrong if the seniors arrive at their final moment and feel compelled to trash it. It curdled my stomach to see that they are contaminated by the pop culture, bratty impulse to crap on dignity and tradition.

As an adult, I sat there thinking, "Why are adults allowing this to happen?" I suppose the reply is that there is no leverage left -- no grades, no demerits (disciplinary marks on a card), no extracurriculars to prohibit. The diplomas are signed.

And it's tough to identify culprits with more than 200 people packed together in a group. (My son claimed that he had a ball in his pocket, but didn't throw it.) It would have to be a Spartacus deal -- you would have to nail everyone to punish your targets.

And it isn't just the students. The first volley of balls came from the audience onto the stage. Air horns, hooting, whistling, shouting -- it's not likely the students will honor the moment if their parents and families don't.

I asked my parents if my graduation from Prep was that bad. I thought I recalled a few balloons or confetti or something, but nothing like the circus of 2008. They confirmed that my graduation in 1980 was a more sedate affair. I remember one student kind of trotting/shuffling across the stage. Father President shook his hand and motioned him to keep moving and exit the stage -- without his diploma. I imagine he eventually got the diploma, but the message was clear.

What I recall vividly is that after we graduates filed out of the main hall and congregated in the lobby, we spontaneously broke into the school fight song one last time. Prep was the focus. Honoring the institution and the shared experience was the focus. Something bigger than ourselves was the focus.

The sense I got from graduation 2008 was: It's all about me, and the best way I can make a splash and satisfy my ego is to cut against the grain and spit on this moment. To hell with Prep tradition and other considerations.

The crushing reality for me is that apparently society has dipped so low that it's not possible to hold a dignified graduation ceremony. I can't imagine it's any better at other schools.

I have another son at Prep, Class of 2010. Maybe the diplomas should be given out at the final senior Mass. (Maybe you start by backing up the parents and making kids pull up their pants so they get the message that they are not gods unto themselves, but have to maintain certain norms to function properly in society). If Prep and the students' parents can't produce a crop of seniors who are mature enough to hold it together for a graduation ceremony, then there shouldn't be a graduation ceremony.

I suppose this sounds harsh. It's because I love Prep and I love my sons, and I have high expectations for both. Some things deserve special treatment. Graduation from high school is a major milestone in the journey of life. Every graduate has a unique and dramatic journey to that moment on the graduation stage. For my son, the journey began in a Third World orphanage. For him to walk across the stage with a solid "B" average and become a graduate of a school with the standards of Prep is an amazing accomplishment. That kind of moment should not happen in an Animal House atmosphere.

Don't try to pacify me with bromides about playfulness and boys being boys. Through sports and other activities, there are plenty of opportunities for fun. If students want to have one more rowdy event and throw rubber balls, that's fine. Make it a picnic, turn it into a food fight, and let 'em knock themselves out.

If the Prep community is going to clean up and gather in the Orpheum Theater, with students in caps and gowns and faculty in formal academic regalia, then let's show some class.


OmaSteak said...

Here's a suggestion...cancel the graduation ceremony altogether. Head of the school announces in a formal letter to parents/students that, due to lack of decorum, next year's graduation ceremony will not take place. After the uproar, make the real policy that any incident from students/parents during the ceremony means the proceedings stop at that instant.

Respectful '08 Prep Grad said...

Things have changed since 1980 sir. The bouncy balls at graduation have been going on for 15sum years. It is tradition. If you were sitting on the stage like me and my fellow classmates you would see how much fun Fr. Merkel was having with the whole ordeal, sorry to debunk your point. It isn't Prep to be silent and somber, graduation ceremony included; maybe back in your day, but not anymore, and who are you to say that that is a bad thing? Times have changed and it is harmless fun. I would be highly, HIGHLY suprised if a single member of my class looked down on that. Even my parents and family enjoyed the ceremony; my mother said when she would start to tear up a ball would fly and it would lighten the mood. Ask Tomas for his honest, truthful opinion and he would tell you the same thing I am saying, because I do know him and have respect for him. DO NOT get your hopes up that the bouncy balls won't fly at the graduation of 2010, because it is tradition and we do it in the upmost respect for Creighton Prep and all of the values they instill in us. And I guarantee future Prep students and graduates will respect this harmless, fun way to lighten to mood.