Graduation is a declaration of independence — and of hope

Jordan Martin on the rights and responsibilities that come with earning a diploma, and how graduations remind us all that growing and learning never end.

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Growing up in Orchard, the month of May meant two things – the end of school and graduation. Like most schools across the state, Graduation Day was filled with the telltale signs: packed gyms, weepy families, and, of course, a lack of air conditioning.

While our little school had the usual rites of high-school graduation, we also took part in a charming production called “Kindergarten Graduation.” During the spring elementary music concert, five- and six-year-olds would file onto the stage in tiny orange and black caps and gowns. The teacher would say some words of congratulations and reminisce about the year. Then, at the end, the kids would sing a song and return to their seats.

What I remember most was that song, called “Time to Graduate.” (Here’s a link if you wish to listen. It’s an upbeat work of synthesizer magic.) It went like this: Watch me as I graduate. As I move on in my life, it’s really great! It’s just what I’ve waited for. Now it’s time to graduate. This song will probably stick with me until I die.

As we approach the end of graduation season in Nebraska, I think about all those who will be moving on to their next chapters in life. Adults-to-be that will make decisions to shape our future. It is an amazing responsibility that we throw in the laps of our young people.

We are requiring them to navigate decisions in life with a clear head. To objectively weigh the pros and cons of every choice. To be informed of the goings-on in our society and the world. To have compassion and empathy. To advocate for themselves and their loved ones. And to do it all as independent people.

In many ways, we lay our hopes and dreams of what the future could be onto these new adults. All of us, regardless of political leaning, hope for a brighter tomorrow. In our graduates, we see the potential for what their lives can be. Years of work and training by teachers, families, friends, and the kids themselves have brought them to this moment. They now fully share our burdens and joys of trying to make our communities better places.

And all of this is good. Most of us “already adults” remember what we were like when we graduated from high school or college (or possibly even Kindergarten). We were excited, nervous, anxious to get into the real world. But above all, we felt we were ready. Ready to go out and try to do life our way, ready to go out and try to change the world, ready to be a “real” adult with all those responsibilities.

Graduation is also a reminder to the “already adults” that our time of growing and learning does not end once the diploma hits our hands. As ready as we may have felt when we left school, we all have experienced events that have challenged us, changed who we are, and forced us to grow. The tassel might be moved from one side of the cap to the other, but our responsibility to be informed about the world or to advocate for our communities doesn’t end.

We still face challenges in our communities that require us to be involved in the institutions around us. The point of graduation is not to signal the end of our maturation but to simply point out a moment where we are trusted to mature more independently.

As summer approaches, I hope that we all can take some time to appreciate our new graduates. Though this time is filled with emotions and tears, seeing them embrace the responsibilities the world will throw at them is one of the most encouraging parts of life.

And, though it probably isn’t going through their heads, a familiar tune is ringing in mine: Watch me as I graduate. As I move on in my life, it’s really great …

Jordan Martin teaches social studies at Wilber-Clatonia Public Schools. He also moonlights as an assistant one-act drama coach in the fall and a speech judge in the spring.

For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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