Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Pomp and Circumstance: The Middle Years

Over on the fabulous Muzik's blog, he is wondering about 8th grade graduation. Why do schools have this silly ceremony for middle school kids, when there are four more years still ahead? I taught middle school for many years and each spring, I wondered the same thing. It seemed so silly. Caps, gowns, rolled-up diplomas, a two-hour sweat-fest in a sweltering gymnasium, with those huge industrial fans roaring on either side of the graduates, which forced the speakers to shout into the microphone to be heard. Dozens and dozens of video cameras rolling; cameras flashing into everyone's faces wherever you looked. Whole blocks of bleachers claimed by the families of ten students, while other kids had nobody and nothing. I hated 8th grade graduation. What a waste of time and resources. You want to do something that will MEAN something to these kids? Throw them a party. Feed them. Play loud music and let them dance. But caps, gowns, and diplomas? Those are for high school and college, the 'endings' and "new beginnings" that really mean something.

I do know that historically, "graduation" used to mean 8th grade. Few people went on to high school; most kids, especially the boys, walked out of the school on the last day of junior high and went to work in factories or farms or stores. In the book (and movie) "I Remember Mama," graduation for Katherine meant 8th grade, and when her brother Nels asked permission to go on to "high," his parents were proud unto pitiful pathos. High school also meant fees, and many families simply did not have it. 8th grade was enough to get by, back in that simpler world. Besides, back then, no student was ever passed on unless he/she could prove working knowledge of every subject taken; it was quite common to be fifteen years old and still in the fourth grade.

Hub's father graduated from 8th grade and went no further. His family needed him to go to work and help support the younger siblings.

Many older novels matter-of-factly discuss 8th grade graduation, and take for granted that it signals the end of free education for their child. To go on, meant more money paid out than most families could afford. High school, back in the day, was more difficult than college is now. Look up some of those exams, if you don't believe me. Think "Little Town on the Prairie." THOSE kinds of exams.

Here is an 8th grade final exam from Kansas, circa 1895. There are claims that it's an urban legend but many sources, and many really old people, claim that it's the real thing. I've seen other similar tests, and it seems authentic. In any case, look what 8th graders had to know, in order to graduate, back then: Final Exam for 8th grade, 1895.

A kid who could pass that test deserved to graduate.

But nowadays, all students go to high school. Not all of them finish, but they all begin. Why do we still have the 8th grade ceremony?

Because not all students will ever have another one. For some, 8th grade is it. High school is set up more for failure than for success, and unless you are a smart kid who is willing to submit to authority that is often ignorant, rules that are often irrelevant, hallways that are often swarming with bullies, curriculi that begin with algebra I and contain no remediation unless special services are involved, schedules that do not take into account the needs of some families, counselors who are only concerned with helping preppie seniors get scholarships, and sports that won't even let a student try out unless he/she comes with a recommendation from another coach, well, some kids just can't fit that kind of scheisse into their already packed and serious lives. Not for long, anyway.

Kudos to those who can. Check out your local high school's dropout rate. Compare the size of the freshman class to the size of that same class four years later. You might be surprised.

So even though 8th grade graduation ceremonies are hot, stupid, meaningless, and asinine, try to think of those kids for whom this little moment of applause and honor are IT. Try to think of those kids for whom there will be no other moment where, for just a few seconds, they have achieved at least the facade of importance.

I still think it's stupid. But I also think of those kids who will never have another shining moment again in all their lives.

As for kindergarten graduation, that has to be the stupidest crock of scheisse ever thought up by a parent who wanted the limelight to begin early for Junior and Junioretta. 5-year-olds in caps and gowns. What's next, Elementary Prom? Little tuxes for 8-year-olds? Limo rides? Strapless gowns for boobless little girls? And then what? Little maternity dresses?

Well isn't that just the cutest thing!
Posted by Mamacita (The REAL one) @ 9:05 PM | |


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