Graduation: One last time to reaffirm student potential

Contributing WriterJune 9, 2014 

“Why is graduation such a big deal, Mrs. Silbaugh?” A senior from last year squinted up at me, doing his best to look cynical.

It is part of my job to explain to seniors why they need to come to graduation – a strange task. Most of us assume that everyone participating in society agrees to the traditions. This student and his peers last year were a challenging group because they questioned everything – literally.

They were comprised mostly of extremely intelligent male gamers, who saw no value in this particular rite of passage. Why dress up? Why invite parents? And especially, why pay money for such a thing? Their idea of celebration involved all-you-can-eat pizza and a LAN game tournament in our all-purpose gym-cafeteria.

I began the process of argumentation. I chose a somewhat cynical tactic since I knew it would appeal to them. I said it is mostly for the adults in the room, similar to a wedding. Lots of nodding and snickering. That reasoning appealed to them.

But then I turned inward. Graduation from high school must be more important than that because we keep affirming its presence in society. I looked out at their young faces and realized that though they are still considered young, they had made it through 18 years of life, and at least 12 to 13 years were spent in one form of education or another.

My next reason was emotional. I tried to help them understand that 18 years is a long time, especially to a parent. Many things can happen in that time. To watch a child walk across the stage is powerful symbolism. Society confers the mantle of adulthood on those who walk over that threshold.

My students looked confused. Some were still not convinced. They still came to the ceremony though. I guess we had normed them well enough.

Looking back, I might explain it in a different way.

Have you ever thrown a ball over a tall fence? Let’s say you can’t see the other side. The ball arcs its way over into unknown territory, though you can probably predict where it might land based on trajectory.

I remember many physics problems that dealt with trajectory. Trajectory depends on force, mass and acceleration. With those pieces of data we can predict where the object might land. I can almost see the catapult problem on my high school physics test.

In education, we know that a good start in life will help people attain greater success. Better nutrition, early learning and less screen time all make for kids who are better prepared to launch. Teaching is a part of that momentum. We are trying to help students reach the point where we know they will clear the fence.

Because teachers aren’t the original source of momentum, it can be challenging to create enough force to get a student over the fence. Sometimes teaching at the high school level is like watching the ball as it shoots past at eye level or soars way over our heads. Depending on the kid, it might dribble to a stop at the fence, needing an extra throw. Yet all kids need to get enough force and acceleration to get their masses over that fence.

Why is graduation important? Over the past year, I have reflected more. And as we approach another graduation, I realize it is for self-interested reasons that I want them to attend graduation. I want my own self-made closure since I don’t get to see where they actually land.

I want one more opportunity to communicate the good qualities I see in them, to show them their potentials, to give them one more push over that fence. I want to tell them again that they are unique, special and gifted because I believe it might be the difference between landing on a soft cushion and crashing on a rock.

Casey Silbaugh of Tacoma, an educator of 15 years, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at

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