May 27, 2012

Graduation and Ball Games

Image via Flickr/paul.hadsall

Two of my kids are playing ball right now, so I have softball and baseball on my mind (3-4 games/week plus practices makes it hard to think about anything else, honestly!) I've also attended a few graduations besides my own, been to some graduation parties, and been reading about graduations in the paper. Put the two together--ball games and graduations--and here's what I've been thinking about. 

For some kids, playing ball seems to come naturally. They are born with a talent for the game and can connect with the ball just about every time they are at bat. It almost seems like they have an advantage! They know how to play the game, and know how to turn a single into a double, or a double into a triple by being fast and paying attention to the game. For those kids, it almost seems like they're starting out on third base! It's fun to watch their natural talent blossom. They represent the innate beauty of pure athleticism. But there are other kids who start swinging and missing from home plate. They have to use every ounce of strength to hit the ball far enough to make it safely to first base. They have to pay extra close attention to the game so that maybe they can steal second. Then they get stranded at second, and have to wait for the next inning so they can begin the process all over again. 

Imagine a game like this: the struggling kid finally gets on second base after two innings of trying. The runner ahead of them on third could potentially score the game winning run. A ball is hit along the third base line. The third base runner heads home and scores the final, winning run of the game. We celebrate that game winning run with fervor and excitement! The team rallies around the winning runner, the crowd hoots and claps and cheers. Meanwhile, the kid who has fought so hard to make a hit and get on base is left alone. Silently running the bases. Touching home just to say that they made it. In the stands, we often don't pay attention to those kids. They don't get our hoots and cheers and high fives, even though their arrival at home plate took much more effort, more work, and more struggle than the home run of the natural athlete. Their run was scored after the game's official ending, so it really doesn't count.

Image via Flickr /MomMaven
Seven of my own students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas last weekend (another one from a different high school walks today.) Those seven students were from a rural Iowa high school that had a graduating class of 60 students. Seven out of 60 were at risk of dropping out, but they made it! For several of them it was a huge accomplishment, a graduation that occurred against all odds! Some kids have overcome poverty, survived the death of a parent, divorce, health problems, and/or other seemingly insurmountable issues---but they made it! Seven out of 60 means that those alternative school graduates made up just over 11% of the senior class. During typical commencement ceremonies, only the top 10% (or less) is recognized.

On Friday, my wonderful former student-turned-current-co-worker held a surprise going away party for me.  I was shocked to look around the room and find out how many of the attendees were kids who didn't earn a diploma when they were working with me. They left my program at age 17 or 18, and went on to either get an adult high school diploma, a GED, or to pursue a job. In the statistics I put together for the state at the end of each year, they are dropouts ("failures") and not recognized in any positive way for their accomplishments--even though they had to persevere and show more stamina than many of their peers to get where they are now.

Yesterday I was reading a newspaper story about the ceremony held Friday night for the students graduating from the school I will be teaching at next year. There is a long list of Valedictorians, Salutatorians, and all of their academic achievements. So many kids earned scholarships and are going on to do impressive things at colleges and universities all over the world. 320 graduates, the highest average ACT score in school history, and many other achievements and honors were bestowed upon the class of 2012 at my future place of employment.

But here's the thing...while there are a few stories of Valedictorians and Salutatorians rising up after difficult childhoods, most successful kids started their k-12 educations with:

  • At least one parent who graduated from high school and attended some college
  • A mom who at least knew about the benefits of breast feeding and didn't feel pressure from social service agencies to sign up for free formula
  • A roof over their heads--and most likely the same roof for a good portion of their childhood (in other words, low mobility and lots of routine)
  • At least one parent who read to them every day as a toddler
  • Access to quality preschool
  • At least one parent who could help with homework after school
  • Access to quality after-school programming
  • Transportation to and from programming after school
  • Regular meals, every day, every month, every year
  • Clothing that not only fit well, but allowed them to fit in well
The most successful kids have all of that, and more, as they grow up. They are set up for success, and the only thing that limits them is their own free will, their own desire to succeed, their own passion for learning. The top 10% of each graduating class sets itself apart because they are driven! They make a commitment to go above and beyond what most of their classmates do, and I agree that they should be recognized for their accomplishments! But I also wish we could recognize the amazing achievements of some students who didn't start out with all that, and still somehow still make it to graduation.

In the game of life, some kids start out on third base and don't even know it. Others struggle to make it on base, work hard to advance, but sometimes don't make it to home plate until after the game is officially over. I am glad that we celebrate the game winning runs! But shouldn't we also celebrate the kid who keeps coming back, inning after inning, trying their best to make it home--even if their feet don't get to home plate until after the game is over?

There are kids who overcome obstacles like parents who are addicted, homelessness, abuse, the death of a parent, poverty and hunger. They try so hard. They overcome so much. For me, those kids accomplish something that is every bit as amazing as what the top 10% of the class does. I wish there was some way to recognize them, too. I wish commencement ceremonies could honor both the top ten percent, and a few of the kids who kept trying, no matter what life put in their way, and finally made it. 

The 11% who worked with me in the alternative program accomplished so much. And I'm sure that among the 320 who graduated from my future school, there are some stories of accomplishment just as great. 

Woo hoo! Congratulations! High Five! Even though you didn't make it to home plate in the usual way, or maybe even during the regular game, I applaud all of you graduates out there who finally did it! 



  1. Way to go! I'm with you. At the community college level, we graduate very few students (my school is at 6%). Many drop out and many go on to other schools without completing with us. When it gets to graduation day, I'm thrilled about the 4.0s (we had three this year!), but I also know that most of them would have done excellently no matter where they landed. Although, we have had some 4.0s who went through hell before they got to us. But I am also thrilled for our students who make it no matter their path. This year we had a student graduate (I did not have her) after going to school for five years full time. She went to an alternative HS in NJ and was told not to even try for college because there was no way she would make it. She came in at the lowest level of remediation in all of her subjects. Because she took five years to graduate instead of three, we don't get to count her as a graduate in the federal government sense, but she is exactly the reason why we faculty do our job. I can't imagine just how much better her life is going to be because she trusted herself instead of the naysayers. She's already been accepted to a four year college. Just like you, we have multiple cases like this every year, and each one deserves applause.  

  2. I love hearing about that alternative school graduate's success! I am beaming with pride at her accomplishment right now! It is so amazing that she stuck with it and will now go to a 4-year college! I am glad that you are out there helping all kinds of kids to further their education, Lonna. Congrats to your grads! And THANK YOU to you and all the other community college profs who don't worry about statistics and just keep helping kids to be successful.

  3. You're gonna make me cry with this post, Jen. The privilege that comes with having all the advantages you outlined don't even seem to register on legislators' radars. I applaud the kids who make it through to graduation, but am in total awe of those who claw their way to that diploma. Should make no difference how they got it, as long is they do.

  4. Oh, don't cry Ezzy! Write--to your legislators or on your blog; work--in your schools an in your neighborhood. I think we can change this! It might take a while, but I think it can happen. Some of my #AltEd colleagues have been lobbying to extend how the state takes data on graduation cohort groups. Success is success--no matter when!


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