Sad sights are popping up all over my neighbourhood: yard signs reading, “So and so of such and such high school. Class of 2020.” Congratulations, Emily and Jacob, you are being ripped off! You thought for all these years of hard work and perseverance you were going to get a real graduation ceremony, and instead your mom erected this embarrassing plaque by your front door.
All over America. traditional graduation ceremonies are being cancelled due to social distancing requirements. Some school districts are getting creative, coming up with alternatives like car parades. As far as alternatives go, I like this one the best, but more restrictive counties, like Santa Clara, went as far as banning car parades.
Another proposed alternative is to have the ceremony in November when students return from colleges for Thanksgiving break. But such tokenised celebrations will no longer mark the end of grade-school years. For Wuhan virus prevention, the timing is also questionable because some experts predict the second wave of infections will hit in the fall.
School districts need to abandon their fears and go ahead with traditional graduation ceremonies. High school graduation is not simply a party, it’s a rite of passage. Such rites mark a transition from one stage of life to another, in this case ceremonializing the end of childhood.
Humans Need Rites of Passage
Anthropologists have been observing rites of passage since the emergence of the field. Early twentieth century anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski noted that rite of passage customs provide participants emotional comfort in troubling times when initiates emerge in new social roles.
Because their bodies don’t change quite as drastically with the onset of puberty, boys crave rites to mark transformation into adulthood more than girls. Classic examples of such life-cycle rites include crocodile scarification in Papua New Guinea and land diving in the South Pacific’s Pentecost Island, during which boys bound by vines jump off a nearly 100-foot tower.
Americans have a wide range of coming of age rituals, including religious rites like bni mitzvahs and confirmation, and secular events such as getting a driver’s license, first pay check, graduation, hazing, gang initiations, boot camps, and slam dancing.
A generation ago it was noted that rites of passage in middle-class America were not what they used to be. Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” tells a story of a fully grown man in search of meaningful initiation into adult masculinity. The widely successful book and the movie that followed acknowledged young men’s unique emotional needs for such ceremonies.
In years since, however, some of the existing rites have only gotten shakier. Religious observance is on a steep decline, particularly among the young. Teens are less interested in driving and jobs. And now they came for high school graduation.
These Graduates Earned Their Walk Across the Stage
Children need it. Some of them have struggled academically for years, burning much midnight oil just to make passing grades. They stayed on track dreaming of the day the principal put that diploma in their hand right in front of entire community.
Others endured bullying, or devastating heartbreaks, but persevered. Some seniors had it easier, and just want to give one last hug to their friends. For most, high school graduation marks the end of formal schooling. For high achievers it’s only the beginning of serious academic work. Every single one of them deserved a ceremonial good bye to childhood.
When schools across the nation closed for quarantine, we already knew that children are not particularly susceptible to the Chinese coronavirus. Now we also know that keeping schools closed does little to reduce the COVID mortality.
School closures are a persistent overreaction from local and state authorities supported by overprotective parents who want to keep their kids away from campuses just in case we learn something new and scary about the disease.
Of course, any virus can surprise us with something new and scary — if it mutates. A black swan event can happen at any time. Should we shut down everything forever because sometimes there are terrorist attacks or school shootings?
So by shutting down over COVID we’ve saved our precious little seniors from an infinitesimal chance of dying. Now what? A few will be joining the military, and may go fight a war. Others will be flirting with danger in strategically chosen environments, like binge-drinking parties in fraternity houses.
Moms Need to Let the Kids Go
Cancelling high school graduation doesn’t serve the needs of kids. It lulls parents, mothers especially, into faux sense of security. They want to protect their precious little darlings, but what they need to do is let go. Surely they don’t want their sons to fill the ranks of incels, or whatever is the 2020 term for mama’s boys.
We are beginning to see the lockdown crisis in gendered terms. Distinguishing the difference between male and female leadership, with female or feminized leaders from New Zealand to California to Michigan acting in overprotective ways, smothering entire populations in needlessly limiting dictatorial “quarantines.”
Traditional male qualities such as independence, rebelliousness, and risk-taking are constantly attacked in the media. It is no surprise that that the shelter-in-place culture is anti-rite of passage, too. Mommy wants you to be safe, and to be her little baby forever.
Knowing what we know now, there is no reason an 18-year-old can’t walk across the stage of a multi-purpose room, unmasked, shake hands with the principal, and get his diploma. Sure, if the principal is diabetic or has some other pre-existing condition, find a healthy woman under 50, a comfortable low-risk group, to take his place. And don’t invite grandpa because he’s high risk. Make a special ceremony for students who are high risk.
These are all exceptions, and we can work around them. We need to focus on graduating seniors worked hard to earn their degrees. They deserve “Pomp and Circumstance,” the whole nine yards. Let’s give it to them.