You haven’t lived until you have attended a commencement ceremony for Walden III High School in Racine. As you might possibly guess from its name, Walden is a profoundly unusual school, although I can’t begin to spell out all of the specifics which make it so unique. Among its most noteworthy characteristics is a highly informal atmosphere in which students are encouraged to call their teachers by their first name – the curriculum is much more open-ended and geared to allow each student to do their own thing in their own way – free creativity is tirelessly encouraged – and students who have struggled in more standard schools often find spectacular success and happiness at Walden. Our dear friend Kate Potter-Barrow teaches English in Walden’s Middle School and both of her children have attended Walden – and last night was her son Jackson’s high school graduation – which is why we were there.
So what was so different? Let me recount the ways:
As you walked into the UW-Parkside communication arts theater, you heard music. It was a Walden student- John Christensen – playing the onstage grand piano to provide some background music. What a lovely touch this was.
Because there were just over 60 graduates, there was basically no limitation on number of guests permitted to attend. (Most of the high schools in both Kenosha and Racine graduate so many students that they have to require tickets and strictly limit the number of tickets per graduate.) We came to learn that there were relatives from all over the country (as far away as Walla Walla, Washington and Miami, Florida) who had gathered for these festivities, which really added to the sense of electricity in the air.
There were two students who served as dual emcees for the evening – and the male half of the duo, graduating senior Justin Wheeler, was absolutely brilliant. He had written a script in which each homeroom teacher was introduced with some sort of funny observation about who they are or some amusing quirk that makes them unique. What was amazing about this young man is that he was hilarious but also demonstrated impressive instincts for what was proper and acceptable humor for this kind of event. In the end, he was the main reason why I didn’t mind sitting through this 2-hour 45-minute ceremony.
At a standard commencement ceremony, the whole class walks across the stage in one long alphabetical procession- with each person’s name announced after which they wordlessly receive their diploma. For Walden’s ceremony, each student is personally introduced by their homeroom teacher. . . with a few words said about the student and what they have been like. Each homeroom consists of a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors- and in some cases a home room teachers has been working with a given student all four years and has gotten to know them well. (The homeroom teacher acts in several capacities, including academic advisor, shepherding each student towards graduation.) The teacher might say something like “Melissa has had a really tough time this year – especially right around Christmas when her mom became seriously ill – but she hung in there, albeit through some tears, and I am so happy that she’s standing here today. She will be going to the University of Wisconsin-Sparta to study astronomy and culinary arts. And I am sure that her strength and determination will see her through.” These remarks by the teachers were so interesting because in some cases they were introducing a superb young scholar and in other cases they were having to talk about someone who struggled all along the way and was graduating by the skin of their teeth. But each and every person’s story was told in positive, optimistic terms. And in a couple of cases, a teacher might actually break down a bit as they talked about a student that they were going to especially miss.
Not only was each student specifically introduced, but upon receiving their diploma – handed to them by their homeroom teacher – the student stepped to the lectern to say a few words. For the vast majority of them, it was a chance to say thanks to their parents, siblings, teachers, friends, etc. – and while most of them were not award-winning orators, every single student was compelling in their own way. A few of them broke down crying – especially one student who has just enlisted in the national guard – and another student whose older sister had suffered from a brain tumor but had just graduated from college and was there – and a number of students who broke down while thanking their parents for sticking with them through tough times. Of course, a few of the graduates kept it light and funny – and a couple of them were all but comatose, saying two or three words – while one young man gave a speech which was a spoof of a revival preacher’s sermon. There was some obnoxiousness, some pomposity, and a couple of students who appeared to have been born on another planet. . . but by and large, it was fascinating and heartwarming and SO much more personal than the typical commencement exercise.
By the way, our young friend Jackson Barrow was introduced by his homeroom teacher in especially glowing terms as being an exceptionally selfless and generous young man , , , and we’ve known that about Jackson for a long long time. That’s why as a young soccer player, Jackson would regularly win both the award for outstanding player and the sportsmanship award as well. And his kind open-heartedness is why he was elected Prom King by his classmates and someone who has a not-so-small army of people from age 6 to 96 who love him and call him friend.
(That was the span of ages for the houseful of company gathered this afternoon to celebrate Jackson’s graduation.)
Anyway, it was an amazing night. . . and I have a feeling that every commencement I attend from here on out is going to seem very lifeless and predictable by comparison.
pictured above: This is one of the homeroom groups after the last of them had received their diploma. The tall guy in brown is the teacher, in a group hug with “his” senior. You can’t tell from the picture, but this teacher was wearing shorts and flip-flops – and in this particular ceremony, that kind of informality was not at all out of place. By the way, the one graduate looking towards the camera is the afore- mentioned emcee, Justin Wheeler. Remember that name- This guy has the talent to be an SNL writer someday,.