Pomp & Circumstances

Five graduations! Hot students! Good vs. evil! Dave Brubeck vs. Eleanor Roosevelt! All this and a pack of Trojans!

Photo by Keith MayI went to five high school graduations this year. I'd like to say I went because so many people have been talking about high school—how it's changed, how it never changes. But I never thought of that until I actually started going.

I went because, in a country that is quickly abandoning public celebrations of civic values, a high school graduation is one of the few events left that says everything about the ideals we share as a country, even as the event says everything about what makes its community unique.

For all their hokiness and familiar paces, for all the valedictories that begin with a Webster's Dictionary definition, graduations echo those agreements and distinctions, as do their graduates' beliefs and aspirations.

I went to five graduations so that I could attend celebrations for public and private schools, for big and small schools, for schools for gifted kids, troubled kids, and kids who asked me if I had accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior. In a way, they were all different—in the way they sounded, in the way they looked and in the way they viewed the world outside the school. In a way, they were all the same—in the way they sounded, in the way they looked and in the way the faces of the graduates radiated that excited, sick feeling one gets at moments of clear yet suspended transition—moments like graduations or driving off a cliff, when one knows things are about to change yet has no idea how quickly change will come, how hard it will be or whether one will come through intact.

"THESE BEAUTIFUL YOUNG PEOPLE"Bethel Baptist High School, Bethel Baptist Church, Santa Ana. June 20, 6 p.m.

It's Sunday, and though graduation is taking place, this is a regular Sunday-evening service in the church. The people taking their seats range in age and race, but most tote Bibles. The teenagers who have come to watch their brothers, sisters and friends look like teenagers you'd find anywhere. They sport chunky black shoes, surfwear, and metal-flake finger- and toenail polish. The girl who directs the congregation in pledging themselves not only to the American flag but also the "Christian flag" and the Bible comes into church carrying a funky Elvis Presley lunch box/purse.

What's remarkable about them is how comfortable they are around adults—respectful but familiar. Whatever differences in age or fashion, they are peers in one elemental thing: they have all chosen to devote their lives to Jesus Christ.

What seems remarkable about Bethel Baptist's class of '99 is that of the 11 graduating seniors, 10 are girls.

"Aren't these beautiful young people?" asks Pastor Dan Davidson after they enter the church and take their seats. "And one of them is handsome."

They laugh. But, as it turns out, such gender lopsidedness is not unusual at the school. A few years ago, the graduating class was made up of six boys. When you're a small school—Bethel has 435 students from kindergarten to high school—that sometimes happens. What is significant is that this is the first class in which every member is planning to go to college, more than half of them to Christian institutions.

After taking part in the song "Thief of Always" (in which we sing, "Live every moment as if it were your last/Before the Thief of Always steals tomorrow from your grasp"), valedictorian Mindy Goertzen begins her speech. She talks of senioritis, itching to get out and get on with things. Actually, this is Goertzen's first year at Bethel; after junior high, her parents home-schooled her. Both of her sisters were in college, and there wasn't the money to send her to a private Christian school like Bethel (where tuition is $3,000 per year), and "there's no way my parents would send me to a public school."

Outgoing and bubbly, she smiles broadly as she gets to the body of her speech, about Daniel and his friends being thrown into a fire for refusing to worship a false idol. She talks about today's false idols: glamour, money, sex. We live in a modern Babylon, she says. Things are falling apart; moral values are deteriorating. She tells her classmates they will confront the same decision as Daniel, that "God has ordained us to enter into an idolatrous world but not to be of that world."

Davidson steps forward to speak. He talks about senioritis and says it will one day give way to senior panic in college. "Do you know what senior panic is?" he asks. "It's when you say, 'I'm about to leave college, and I don't have anyone to marry.'"

They laugh. Davidson becomes serious, holding up a cartoon about Columbine High School. Two kids are outside the school. One asks the other, "Why didn't God stop this?" The other answers, "How could he? He's not allowed in school anymore." Correct, Davidson says. He says that 1964, the year prayer was banned in schools—a year before Bethel Baptist established a school—was the year immorality and danger rose on campus. He talks about Rachel Scott, who was killed in the Columbine massacre for answering yes to the executioner's question, "Do you believe in God?" The problem is not guns, he says. When Cain killed Abel, no one blamed the club. "Adam and Eve did not attack the NCA—the National Club Association." The problem is that God is no longer the focus of a child's day. "Amen!" says the congregation. He blames "Deweyism, Darwinism and Humanism." "Amen!"

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