Not the Same Old, Same Old

Even if I used all my fingers and all my toes, I couldn’t begin to count the number of graduation ceremonies I’ve attended over the past fifty-something years.

Perhaps I’m remembering wrong, but in the old days, we baby boomers didn’t walk across a stage and get a diploma at the drop of a hat. High school and college were pretty much it. Not so for the generations behind me. My own three children “graduated” from Mothers Day Out, kindergarten, elementary school and middle school before they ever got to the real thing. Add in nieces and nephews and friends and it’s easy to grow weary of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Despite that weariness, I happily showed up on May 17 to watch the Class of 2013 at Jere Whitson Elementary School graduate.

I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with the fourth graders there once a week for the past school year as part of my church’s community outreach. I shared stories from Tennessee history with the students, but we did a whole lot more than that.  We made leaf rubbings of common Tennessee trees.  Slathered pine cones with lard and rolled them in birdseed and recorded what kind of birds showed up to eat. Shared scary stories at Halloween. Made homemade ornaments and hung them on a “pioneer” cedar Christmas tree. Learned to sing the names of all the U.S. Presidents, in order.

How could I say no when they invited me to their graduation?

All the visitor chairs and most of the bleachers were filled with family and friends before the honorees filed in to the gymnasium. Some of the boys wore neckties; several had their shirttails tucked in for what I suspect was the first time this year. The girls shone in pretty dresses or pant outfits and shoes far too fancy for a regular day at school.  They were all so quiet and un-wiggly that it was almost unnerving.

Dr. Teri Anderson, JWES Principal, welcomed students and guests. Then the entertainment segment of the program commenced. And was it ever entertaining! Accompanied (and extraordinarily well-coached) by their music teacher, Mrs. Sherry Labar, the students performed four numbers flawlessly: “Fifty Nifty United States,” “This Land is Your Land,” “The Ballad of Lewis and Clark” and “The Presidents Song,” which just so happens to be my personal favorite.

Then it was time for the award presentations. Accelerated Reader. Honor Roll. Good Citizenship. Best music students. Best P.E. students. Farm Bureau poster contest winners. Highest Grade Point Average. Safety Patrol.  Mister and Miss Jere Whitson Wildcat.

Same old, same old. Right? Well, no. Why did the Jere Whitson graduation ceremony bring a tear to my eye when so many others don’t? Perhaps it was because I knew every single one of the kids whose name was called. I understood that, while some come from comfortable homes where academic success is encouraged and expected, many do not. The student population at Jere Whitson is among the poorest in Putnam County. Many of its families struggle to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. And to speak and read English.

So when fifty spit-and-polished fourth graders marched across the stage and received their diplomas from teachers Valarie Kirby, Virginia Kirby, and Craig Swineford, it was hard not to get emotional. Especially when each of them solemnly signed the “Pledge to Graduate from High School” that Dr. Anderson had hung on the gymnasium wall.

Congratulations and Godspeed to all of my Jere Whitson kids. And to every other member, of whatever school or age or station, of the Class of 2013.

(May 26, 2013)


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