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Commencement Season: On 8th Grade Graduation

When I was a kid, many, many eons ago, I didn’t get allowance for doing things like dishes or vacuuming the floor or cleaning my room.  My parents, I assume in an effort to get me ready for life, didn’t believe that one should be rewarded for doing things she was supposed to do.  It sucked then–I thought they were a pair of mean cheapskates–but I understand it now.  To this day, I’ve yet to receive a single dollar for changing my own damn sheets.  I imagine my parents’ miserliness when it came to hooking up their kids with a decent working wage oh so long ago, among other things, has colored the way I think about young people and when and how we reward them.  Now that I’m (much, much) older, I realize that my parents may have not been the norm, but rather part of the minority, that a lot of kids not only were getting allowance, but ribbons for doing things like coughing into their arms.  

I scowl at the absurdity of the Participation Trophy Generation, perhaps because of upbringing, perhaps because of jealousy or narcissism (who wouldn’t want their child to grow up as self-loathing and -deprecating as I am?).  Maybe in response to those “old school” folks like my parents, we’ve put our self-esteem muscles on steroids, and now congratulate our children for any and everything, including “graduating” from grades one doesn’t–or shouldn’t–graduate from.  In other words, I think 8th grade graduations are ridiculous, and they need to stop.

To be clear, I am not anti-preschool graduation, because frankly, what’s cuter than trying to get a bunch of capped and gowned four-year-olds to sit through a commencement ceremony?  The valedictory address–the honor given to the best helper, graham cracker distributor, or the one who just peed her pants the least–is worth the price of admission alone.  But 8th grade graduation?  Not so much.  Pubescent, peach fuzzed, pimply faced teens high on Proactiv just don’t have the same allure.

If a child passes the 8th grade, there should not be a party in the USA.  This is not a celebratory moment.  One can no longer get a decent job at GM with a “diploma” from the 8th grade.  (Which reminds me, people really need to quit with that whole, “My grandfather had an 8th grade education…” schtick.  It is kind of dishonest.) Hell, no one can get a job at GM right now.  So we need not behave as if graduating from passing 8th grade merits anything beyond a pat on the back and a trip to The Olive Garden.

What do we signal if we are overly enthusiastic about children’s educational accomplishments?  Isn’t the implicit, unspoken statement one of low expectation?  Oh damn!? You passed 8th grade!? Let’s party! There’s no space for 8th grade graduate on a job application, a resumé, or a CV because the feat is no longer remarkable.  So why, through graduation ceremonies, do we remark upon them?  You’re supposed to pass 8th grade.  And, to echo my parents (ohmygod I can’t believe I’m starting to sound like my parents), you don’t get rewarded for things you’re supposed to do.  You do what’s expected of you, because life isn’t going to pat you on the back for breathing.

I got in two separate semi-beef with N and another friend about this the other day.   One of them, I can’t remember which, suggested that 8th grade graduations might be all right because it might be the only time that some of these students graduate.  Um, what?  Drop out rates are one helluva problem, but I don’t think it’s the best idea for school systems to address the issue by having ceremonies for those who might not make it through grade 12.  In a marathon, there’s no finish line at the 18-mile marker.  If we discover that most of the runners can’t finish all 26.2 miles, we don’t shorten the race; we revolutionize the training.

As an aside, on a macro-level, I can’t help but think of the capitalistic fingerprints on things like 8th grade graduation ceremonies.  Back in the You can now go work for Ford days, the ceremonies made sense because there were new/more bodies for the workforce.  You could get a decent job with an 8th grade education.  Now, we’ve turned passing 8th grade into a reason for celebration because it’s an opportunity to sell goods and services: manicures, pedicures, new outfits, flowers, greeting cards, etc.  We brand ourselves, we might as well brand education levels.

I say all of this not because I necessarily agree with the education is the key to (financial) success philosophy.  I do not subscribe to that school of thought.  I definitely don’t mean to suggest that we stress the value of education by stressing how much money one can make with one.  Yet if believe that we should educate children–and I think we should–I think we owe it to them to at least impart them with a free education that allows them to be productive and valuable (not in the capitalistic sense) citizens of the world.  And by implicitly telling them, “It’s okay to stop now,” or even, “Look at this remarkable thing you’ve accomplished!” through an overzealous response to passing 8th grade, we potentially severely mislead them on what that world looks like, and how that world will treat them.

P.S. Who could pass 8th grade in 1895?