Tuesday, June 07, 2011

In Which I get Kicked Out of a Public School Ceremony

 Seamus will be "moving up" tomorrow from the upper elementary to the middle school, with accompanying pompous ceremony. I have already attended three of these moving up days, and that is three more than anyone should have to.

Three years ago when Grace moved up to middle school, I wrote a piece describing her ceremony but didn't publish it here.  Thinking of what I am about to endure again, I dug it up, and here it is.

2008:  Grace "graduated" from the upper elementary school, which holds a moving up ceremony that is beyond painful to sit through.  Since hers would be my third moving up ceremony I was purposely late, to avoid the speeches, and thus made things worse. For one thing, I couldn't find a seat.  A man directed me to the balcony, where he claimed there were seats, and there were, only they were all in the middle of the rows, and each row was packed with very large people.  I could not see a single seat that would not require me to force my body through a narrow gauntlet of flesh and auditorium chairs in order to get to it.  Additionally, all the people sitting in the end seats were giving me hostile looks that said, "I ain't moving for YOU."  

Discouraged, I returned to the large, deep, wing between balcony sections and stood there unobtrusively, but the man didn't like that and told me I HAD to take a seat.  I tried to explain that I can not squeeze myself past a long line of large, hostile people, but he thought I was being irrational, and it came down to sitting or being kicked out of the auditorium so I gathered my dignity, exited, and arranged myself on a large poufy ottoman in the vestibule, where I could still hear what was going on.  

The speeches were just starting.  What had they been doing for the last half hour?  The chairman of the school board spoke first.  He gets props for being brief and relevant.  Next came the superintendent of schools.  She gave a very long speech, the theme of which was overcoming adversity and always doing your best.  To illustrate her point, she told a story about a "little girl she once knew."  This little girl was a very good little girl who always did what she was told and always tried hard to be good.  Then one day the unthinkable happened:  the little girl forgot her book when she had specifically been told to always bring her book to school!   The superintendent spoke for a very long time about the little girl's thoughts and feelings and the reactions of every single adult even tangentially connected to the little girl.  Finally, the big reveal:  I was that little girl.  

More speeches followed--the principal of the upper elementary, the principal of the middle school.  He concluded his speech by bellowing "ARE YOU A CHAMPION?"  to which the kids were supposed to respond, "YES!"  He did this as many times as it took for an enthusiastic response, which was a great many.  The music teacher sang a song. She wrote it herself.  Something about catching moonbeams and wishing upon stars.   

Next came the awards. This school is the only upper elementary for the entire city of Charlottesville, so the student body runs the full gamut of the socioeconomic scale and the emphasis at these ceremonies is always on encouraging the kids who don't have many advantages.  Hence the platitude-laden speeches and the painful earnestness of the music teacher's song.  Each award was presented by a different group--and each representative of each group gave a speech. Naturally. The guy from the Rotary Club spoke for ten full minutes.   

This whole time, the vestibule, where I relaxed on my pouffe, was busy with people walking in and out, chattering, snacking, talking on their phones, pushing strollers with crying babies, and popping out for a quick cigarette.  I decided that this might be a good time to steal one of their seats, and I did, in the far upper reaches of the balcony on the extreme right side of the auditorium.  It was, at least, an aisle seat.  

At last, the big moment:  the presentation of certificates.  Parents are asked to hold their applause until each class has received their certificates, so that all names could be clearly heard, but the audience is always rowdy at the upper elementary graduation.  As each name was called, the audience erupted in whistles and hoots. "That's my baby, right there. THAT'S MY BABY!" screamed one woman as her daughter walked across the stage.  I would have been amused, but my mood was soured by my confrontation with the Seating Authority. It would have been NICE to have heard Grace's name called.  Oh well, she'll probably get married some day and I can hear it then.  Some children did not get screams and hoots.  These were the children whose parents know how to behave in public.  

The principal concluded the ceremony by asking parents to remain in their seats until the students had left.  This was downright funny because parents were actively leaving as she made her request and continued to exit the auditorium, and there was an impossibly confusing melee outside--a nightmare for teachers who had to get their kids onto buses and take them back to school.  

I had been invited to go out to lunch with five of Grace's friends and their mothers.  We were all seated at two outdoor tables in the cool shade on Charlottesville's downtown mall, the girls at one table, looking charming in their best dresses, and the mothers at another.  None of us knew each other very well, and one mother, unfolding her napkin and placing it daintily in her lap, said crisply, "That was a nice ceremony."  It was an invitation, not an observation. Would we make a delicious feast of the tedious speeches and the parents' outrageous behavior, like sharks at a feeding frenzy, or would we pretend to take the mother's statement at face value?  After the briefest of pauses, the balance of the conversation almost palpably vibrating, the rest of us agreed that it had been very nice and the conversation turned to summer camps and vacation plans.

When I wrote that, I was pissed off about the man who kicked me out of the auditorium, the superintendent's cluelessness about topics that urban sixth graders can relate to along with her condescending kindergarten-level tone, public schools in general and Charlottesville City Public Schools in particular.  This was the terrible year that I'd had to remove Ian from Charlottesville High School because--sorry if I sound smug--he was too smart for public school. Here was a kid who wanted to learn.  What he didn't want to do was sit on a square of paper on the floor of the English classroom and doodle his feelings (an actual assignment) or be a guinea pig to educational fads, but the rigid public school system could not accommodate him.

What I didn't know when I wrote the piece about Grace's moving up ceremony was that two days later, one of those graduating sixth-graders would be murdered in his own home , further underscoring how completely out of touch the superintendent, with her ridiculous speech, was with her student population.

Seamus will move up tomorrow.  This will be my last moving up ceremony. I have already learned that arriving late is not a good tactic.  What about being punctual, but a teensy bit drunk?  It's tempting.


  1. Do you have to go? It sounds horrible. I do not appreciate having a ceremony merely for the sake of the ceremony, everything is not cause for an inspirational speech.
    I go with drunk.

  2. I'll be there and I can promise you I'll be taking notes for a blog post that will likely be similar to this one.

    And if you bring a flask with you, I'll be happy to share. Hell, tell me what you're bringing and I'll bring a good mixer.

  3. I'm with Jennifer - I'd not go, and have my kid not go with me so that we could experience something more useful, such as watching a movie or going for a hike or anything else.

  4. Man, that sounds excruciating.

    It only took one middle school awards ceremony to realize I never wanted to do that again. My son agreed. I hope my daughter is as accommodating when she starts middle school in the fall.

  5. I suggest timely, buzzed and be loud! Might as well raise some hell, then get thrown out. After all, it's your last one. Oh, and be happy -- I have about 20 more of these to go!

  6. All of the reasons why I cannot bear these types of ceremonies. Heck, I even skipped out on my own. Get tipsy and go.

  7. ugh. one more reason I'm glad we're not in public school right now.

  8. It can only be seen as 'character building', imagine yourself in the most impossibily difficult, stressful, life threatening situation ever and then thinking "but I survived the Public School Ceremony, I can survive this". No? Oh well, I'd opt for the Gin then :)

  9. We completely missed the moving up ceremony (from 2nd to 3rd) because my son refused to go. And I feel horrible but I was relieved.