March 8, 2006

By the time I'm a parent, they'll sell class rings at daycare.

It all started with an innocent lunchtime conversation among coworkers.

"I have to go pay for my son's cap and gown," one of my colleagues said, casually recalling her to-do list.

"Wait a minute," I interrupted. "Is your son even in school yet?"

"He's graduating from kindergarten this spring."

I don't have children, so it took me a minute to put all the words together and realize she was being serious. My other coworkers, all mothers with children of various ages, piped in to confirm that yes, it was perfectly common in this day and age to slap a mortar board on the head of a five-year-old, play "Pomp and Circumstance," and hand him or her a "diploma" that the "graduate" could not reasonably be expected to read.

Furthermore, they informed me that not only are kindergarten graduations par for the course, but so are ceremonies commemorating the completion of fourth grade, sixth grade, and eighth grade.

I hate to sound old and crotchety, but I didn't have a graduation until I finished high school, and I didn't need one.

A graduation ceremony should be about accomplishment. It should be a celebration of your effort and a series of decisions to attend school, do some amount of work, and stick it through the tough times. Well, OK, graduating from high school was a non-negotiable for me, but it's not that way for everyone. People legitimately have the option to drop out of high school, and a decent number of people take that road. For those who make it to graduation day, there is some level of conscious effort and achievement to be recognized.

But passing kindergarten? Or fourth grade? Some kids might get held back a year (but not "left behind," no sirree), some might need a special ed class or two, but as far as I know, the completion of grade school is pretty universal these days.

My coworker's son is incredibly excited for his graduation from kindergarten. But I worry that having so many graduations is just going to diminish the excitement of the ones that really count.

I remember being very excited about my graduation from high school. My mom set up a shrine of all my creative writing and artwork from grade school. Friends, neighbors, and teachers congregated at my house for hors d'oeuvres and three kinds of cake. Well-wishers gave me cards filled with money and copies of Dr. Seuss's "Oh, the Places You'll Go."

When I graduated from college, it was pretty exciting, but I didn't feel the need to alert the world or relive the party from high school. Instead, Sam and I hosted a small reception at the Happy Chef for our immediate families. Then we went out and got drunk with our friends.

When I finished my master's degree, I was tired of hearing "Pomp and Circumstance," monotone speeches by deans I'd never interacted with, and an endless list of graduates' names followed by the inevitable mispronunciation of my own. My mom was in town for the event, but the idea of spending four hours in the sun squinting for a glimpse of my cap-obscured face sounded tedious even to her. Instead, we went out for dinner, then played nickel slots at a casino for a couple of hours.

Let's face it: There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to graduation ceremonies. My coworker's child will have worn a cap and gown a minimum of three times before he finishes high school. By the time his graduations start being meaningful, he will probably be too bored with them to care.

While I'm sure that kindergarteners love wearing the rented robes of academia and being the center of attention, I suspect they'd get more enjoyment out of an ice cream social or a day at the water park. This begs the question: Who are these ceremonies really for?

I thought it might be the parents, but my coworkers quickly shot down that notion. They complained about the pointlessness of the junior graduations and the money drained out of their pockets each time one of their kids advanced from one school to the next.

But even though they disagreed on principle, they raised a good point:

"Do you want to be the one mother who says 'No,' so your child has to sit on the sidelines while everyone else in the class gets to be in the ceremony?"

Ah, yes. There's the real story, folks. Peer pressure is a powerful motivator for both kids and parents, and there is money to be made in these ventures.

Cap and gown rental for a kindergarten graduate: $25

Graduation photo package conveniently available through school: $60

Cheapening children's real academic achievements later in life so that some corporation can make a profit: Priceless?

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