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Meaning of graduation shouldn't be taken lightly

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 24, 2002

I have a slightly unusual perspective on the Pasco issue of whether kids who haven't met graduation requirements should take part in graduation ceremonies: A long time ago I was one of those kids.

Wearing a batik (forgive me for my fashion sins) sport coat, I sat in the audience in June 1962 and watched kids I had gone to school with for six years, including one to whom I was engaged, walk down the aisle while Pomp and Circumstance played over what passed back then for a sound system.

Like some of the kids in Pasco, I had gone to the prom, presenting the woman who would later become my first ex-wife with a quarter-carat diamond, paying more than half of my weekly income for a club sandwich at a high-priced Miami Beach hotel and then heading for the beach.

I had been photographed wearing a cap and gown, and if you look in the yearbook from my high school for that year, it looks like I graduated, but I didn't.

I lacked a half credit in U.S. history and government, and that was enough to keep me in the audience and off the stage.

There certainly weren't any surprises in all of that. When I flunked -- actually chose not to attend -- the course, I was notified that I would not graduate and moved from a senior homeroom to a junior homeroom for "humanitarian" purposes so I wouldn't have to watch everyone dealing with cap and gown rental and invitation printings and class rings.

Forty years later I haven't forgotten the anger and humiliation of that graduation day, and I empathize with the kids who, unless there is an unexpected policy change, won't graduate tonight.

That said, I have to come down on the side of the more conservative members of the School Board and administration (and we will now take a brief pause while those who are near them run for smelling salts).

If graduation is, as my old pal, board member Jean Larkin says, just a ceremony, "just children walking across a stage," then why does anyone bother? Why have the standards and why have the ceremony?

The educational process should not be one of just grades and test scores, it should also be one about life, and at what point do we start educating our young that failure to meet set standards results in failure to achieve the benefits of having met them?

Where do we stop sparing their feelings by telling them it's okay and then sending them off to further enterprises for which they are not prepared?

Boot camp?

Medical school?

Last week I watched my stepson graduate from college after four years of rigorous studies and living on a shoestring budget as he and his mother, who had been single for most of that time, put together a package of scholarships and student and private loans and hard, hard work, the end of which he and she celebrated with that moment.

And that's what a lot of high school kids will be doing tonight: noting with relief and pride that they have passed one of life's milestones -- passed, not bypassed.

Something else puzzles me.

If I had been given the chance, 40 years ago, to don a cap and gown and walk down the aisle of that auditorium in Miami and to cross the stage and receive the same rolled-up piece of blank paper (the diplomas were handed out later) that everyone else did, I am pretty sure I would have refused.

I had nothing to celebrate. I was going into life (and straight to Parris Island) without even minimal educational documentation. I would not have accomplished what the people in line with me had, and I would have felt bogus pretending that I had.

The humanitarianism and compassion that Larkin and others show in wanting to save the feelings of the kids who haven't yet met graduation requirements is understandable and even commendable, and if the school officials were to give in and let them walk tonight, the world wouldn't end.

But somewhere along the line, in the real world, the answer on something like a mortgage loan or a job promotion or an application for a permit or license is going to be "no," and all the sobbing parents and well-meaning politicians in the world won't change that.

I was lucky in learning what it felt like early.

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