At the elementary school my children attend they have a special ceremony at the end of the school year they call “stepping back.” All the kids in one grade hold hands and get in a big line stretched across the quad, and then when it’s their turn they all take a giant step back, which symbolically makes room for the lower grade to take their place.
I love this idea — the simplicity of it, the meaning of it, and the fact that it’s over in about three minutes. Our school, in fact, sent out a notice to parents not to get too frantic about getting to the stepping back ceremony in time for photos, that it was really for the kids and not the parents, that it was easy to get there at the wrong moment and find you’d missed the whole thing.
I missed it at the end of the last school year, in fact, having been stuck a bit late in a meeting, and my daughter Belle took me to task. “Mom,” she said, “it’s exactly the same as graduating from college!”
I had to call phooey on that one right away.
I suggested to her that the end of fourth grade was not the same as graduating from high school, much less college, and that it was not necessary to make too big a deal about it, and that I wouldn’t always be there taking pictures every time she took a step in the right direction, whether it was forwards, backwards or sideways.
Then just last week I read an article in the New York Times about the escalating nature of eighth-grade graduation ceremonies and realized Belle’s not the only one who wants to make a big deal about these relatively small milestones.
At Community Middle School in Plainsboro, New Jersey, for instance, “year-end activities have included a formal dance; the Cameo awards, an Oscars-like ceremony for students in the television and video production classes; a trip to Hersheypark in Pennsylvania; and a general awards assembly. On Thursday evening there was a salute to the entire class. On Friday, the class picnic.”
According to the article this is not unique or even excessive compared to many. At schools across the country in both rich and poor communities, in both urban and suburban schools, eighth-grade graduation ceremonies now mimic college ones. Some people are deriding these extravagant commemorations as over-praising what should be expected. Even Barack Obama said in recent speech at a church, “Now hold on a second — this is just eighth grade . . . you’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”
I’m in favor of celebrating and praising my children’s accomplishments, but I think Mr. Obama’s right that there’s such a thing as overdoing it, and I suspect it can ultimately undermine a kid’s inclination to achieve things.
Do I want to convey to my children that graduating from elementary or junior high school is such a fabulous achievement that they can now rest on their laurels? Do I want to condition them to expect outsized gestures of recognition whenever they do the normal thing? Do I want them to get caught up in the materialism of expensive graduation gifts, rented limos, and endless parties, which can overshadow the point of the achievement itself?
So I told Belle I was sorry that I missed her stepping-back ceremony, but I also told her that coming to the end of fourth grade is really not much different than coming to the end of December. You don’t get a lifetime achievement award, you simply take a few moments to look back and reflect on whether or not you did your best and then move on.
Now when and if you graduate from college, I told her, I promise: I WILL be there with my camera clicking.