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A Tale of Two Graduation Ceremonies

June 6, 2011

Actually,  this involves more than two graduation ceremonies since I have  attended at least five past  Fremont graduations, but tonight,  I had the privilege of attending  the Verdugo Hills High School graduation ceremony and my goodness, what a difference from a Fremont graduation.  It’s an LAUSD school but the behavior of the parent and family attendees was much more respectful than  at the Sports Arena graduations of Fremont.

I was invited to the ceremony by a student I tutor at a group home.    He is one of the few young people in such a situation who has “made good.”    He has been accepted to Cal State Northridge and will be staying on the campus all summer to get acclimated.  He will also receive transitional housing for a few years due to his status.

The evening was clear and beautiful as was Verdugo High’s campus.  The first thing I noticed was the racially balanced graduating class, white, asian, black and latino.  You could hear a pin drop during the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner, which was sung unbelievably well by student Susan Stone.  At the Fremont graduations,  parents and families often  talked and laughed through both.  There was no bilingual translation- everything was done in English and there was also no phony,  hypocritical Balderas speech about “coming back to serve your community.”  If I remember correctly, many teachers at Fremont DID come back to serve their community – like Maria Gaspar and Mario Becerra but they were not good enough for the “New Fremont,” and they had spines.   Instead the principal who has been at Verdugo for five years, announced her retirement, saying she was going into the Peace Corps, something she has planned to do at 22 but was now going to do 41 years later.

Another noticeable difference: Verdugo High had 10 valedictorians- five were asian, four were white and one was latino.   The racial disparity I am sure will be blamed on teachers because we are using poverty as an “excuse.”  Yet coincidentally, those who aren’t living in poverty tend to do better in school.  And they don’t have to worry about getting jumped on their way to school.

Hey, I’ve got a novel idea- how about placing the blame squarely where it belongs, on the parents and students themselves for failing to hold themselves to high standards and failing to promote intellectual achievment in the home.

The  Verdugo High valedictorian speeches however, while amusing, were somewhat light weight given the nature of the event.  I do remember that Fremont valedictorians were much more serious about their academic achievments, probably because of all of the barriers they encountered in an entrenched bureaucracy that makes it difficult for teachers to actually do their jobs.  Barriers like students being forced to take manicuring because there were no decent electives.  Barriers like almost never being able to see their counselors and dealing with students pressuring them not to achieve.  Reaching the finish line of graduation is a much more arduous task forFremont students in Local District 7 than Verdugo High students.

I also noticed very little thanking of teachers during the ceremony, something that I remember a lot of at Fremont.  But then again I also saw twice the number of parents at the event and most were dressed for the occasion.  I saw no gang attire or long white T -shirts.  It was refreshing.   It was obvious that students at Verdugo receive much more  support at home for education, which may explain why families were thanked much more than teachers.

A missing component at the Verdugo celebration was the absence of grandstanding politicians and local district bureaucrats with unending speeches.   Here in humble Tujunga, only the principal, valedictorians and two counselors spoke.    Again, there was silence from the crowd during the speeches and no bad behavior.   And interestingly, I saw no cell phones among the students during the actual ceremony.

School police were there, but absent was the swagger and attitude of Fremont school police officers.  Verdugo parents speak English and aren’t intimidated as easily as Fremont parents.  An educated populace is the best defense against tyranny.  Police and security spoke to everyone with respect.

During the ceremony, two students played guitar and sang a song called “Life is Beautiful” as the crowd clapped along.  I appreciated the lack of attempts to be politically correct about race and culture.  This was an American event for every student and for every parent.   The closest we had of something like that at Fremont was the one year, I think it was 2007, when the graduation was held on Fremont’s campus in the field- it was the most meaningful and authentic graduation ceremony in the 7 years I was at Fremont- even if the graduation flyer did misspell our school’s name- “Ferment High School,” certainly a cringe inducing moment.

Verdugo Hills High is still in SLC’s and there seems to be an obliviousness to the chaos enveloping other schools in the district.  I thought with sadness that sometime very soon, their calm, peaceful world will be shattered by district suits showing up to bully them about test scores.  But I pushed that thought out of my mind as I enjoyed the moment of wholesome celebration sans politics and trouble- makers that seems to be disappearing from many LAUSD schools.

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