High School Report 11
(From a letter in 1996)
The students’ high school education ends with a graduation ceremony. They practice for it weeks in advance, so that’s more time not spent learning anything. The ceremony takes place in the gym. Now mind you, these American gyms are a lot bigger than European school gyms. They have a full-size basketball court, with bleachers on both sides that can easily hold a thousand spectators. At one end of the court a podium is built where the school board, the superintendent, the high school principal, and the business manager sit. Each year the school also invites an important person. Last year they invited their congressman, but he had something more important to do, so he sent an assistant.
In front of the podium are the seats for the students, with seats for the teachers on one side. The band sits in the back. A red carpet runs from the door to the podium. The parents and other family members watch from the bleachers.
When the ceremony is about to begin, the podium people are already seated, as well as the teachers and the band. The band begins to play a tear-jerker and the graduates in their caps and gowns and with tears in their eyes walk down the red carpet to their seats, practiced and proud.
The principal gives a speech, welcoming everyone, mentioning all the podium folks by name, as well as the important guest. As his name is mentioned, each podium person stands, chewing his gum, receiving his applause. Then all rise for the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. It’s the only moment that the chewing briefly stops.
The band plays some more, and then another speech by the principal, in which he explains why we’re here and all that, and then all rise to sing the alma mater.
Then it’s the superintendent’s turn, and after a lot of “pride” and ‘cougars” and “cougar pride”, he introduces the important guest.
The important guest (the assistant of the important invitee who had no time) is rarely the important guest anywhere, so his speech – which is completely irrelevant since he doesn’t know this community – lasts an hour. He reminisces about that one time, twenty years ago, that he visited the Rio Grande Valley, and how tasty the tamales were and how hot it was, just like today, yada yada yada.
Then the counselor hands out the scholarships. There’s quite a few, but most are only for $100 because there have been few real accomplishments. Each scholarship is handed out separately, even though it’s only a group of ten students who receive them all.
The counselor mentions the scholarship, which company is the donor, the amount, and which student gets it. The student walks to the podium, gets the reward and applause, and sits back down. Then the next one. This takes about 30 minutes. One student gets a full scholarship for the university in Brownsville, because she was on the honor roll and third in Texas for track and field.
These scholarships are important because the community is so poor. Even the universities in the Valley charge $250 per course, excluding books and such.
Again there’s music, and then the diplomas are handed out. They’re handed out in alphabetical order, except for the honor roll students, who come first, led by the valedictorian and the salutatorian (those with the highest grades).
As each student walks up to the podium, the counselor talks about his or her future plans. Some will go straight to work, most of them are going to the community college, five are going to the universities in Edinburg and Brownsville, and two students are going to smaller universities further north in Texas.
After another half hour the diplomas are all handed out, and after more band music the valedictorian and the salutatorian give their speeches, which are clearly half written by the English teacher.
They thank their parents, the coaches (this is where their voices begin to tremble), and their favorite teachers. They say how wonderful their time at the school has been, and how proud they are to be from this hamlet, and that they are coming right back after getting their university degrees. Applause.
More music. Then all the graduates line up in front of the podium to sing the class song, while holding hands. This is usually a Whitney-Houston kind of song. Tears stream down cheeks, eyes reflect hope for a glorious future after this terrific milestone.
My eyes are tearing up as well. Tomorrow real life will begin for these kids, and they will all fall flat on their faces. Everyone gets up and congratulates them, gives them flowers. After some refreshments the three-hour-long spectacle is finally over.
On the way home in my car I remember how I went to pick up my high school degree. After a brief speech by the principal all the names were rattled off. The students were handed out their diplomas in a constant stream. I placed my signature on my diploma, shook the principal’s hand, and walked off the podium, folding my diploma four ways and sticking it in the back pocket of my jeans. That was that. Time to party.
One of the honor roll students is now “studying” education at the university in Edinburg, where the average undergraduate classes are given at Dutch ninth grade level. When she graduates after four years, she is guaranteed a teaching job at her old school.
Every now and then she drops by the school, or she’s here to substitute for a sick teacher, and she told the counselor recently that she had gone to Edinburg full of confidence, but that she has a hard time keeping her head above water.
This was the last post in this series.