Pomp & Circumstances

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

People arrive early as the home side of the stadium fills up quickly. Many make their way to the school on Westminster Avenue, where, a block east of the campus, they encounter several men demonstrating outside a shopping center. They're demanding the recall or resignation—or maybe even death—of Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam, whom they claim is friendly to communists. "Tony Lam Betrays" says one sign. "Tony, Stop Supporting the Communists" says another, which is adorned with skulls and smeared red paint. Lam sits in effigy in two places; in both cases, his hands are tied behind his back and there's a rope around his neck. If the men are angry, they don't show it. Mostly they sit quietly on a stone fence and wave when, every now and then, a car honks its horn.

The majority of the kids graduating from Bolsa Grande today are Vietnamese-Americans. Out of a senior class of 297, 74 have one of three last names: Nguyen, Pham or Tran. The stadium they'll graduate in is all-American. Graduates enter from either end zone and walk to their seats by passing a corridor of large American flags planted in the ground. The field borders the 22 freeway, and more than a few truckers, seeing the graduates in their bright-red gowns as well as the flags, blast their horns in approval, the graduates waving back. In the stands, the crowd is energized. People hold up signs and banners when they spot their graduate. They blow horns and yell names; graduates who find their loved ones strike poses and laugh, as do their teachers, who casually wave them on. Many of them have customized their caps and gowns with sequins and glitter. The stream of people into the stadium continues throughout the ceremony, the crowd abuzz in conversations in English, Vietnamese and Spanish. They cheer for the school orchestra; they cheer for the school choir. They cheer for school principal Jim Morrison's honest-but-fractured, Southern-accented attempts at pronouncing the names of Vietnamese-American students who have earned academic awards; he smiles his way through it and then warmly hugs each winner. Valedictorian Nga Ngoc Thuy Nguyen comes to the podium and asks for a moment of silence for the victims of the Columbine massacre. She has carried a 4.43 grade point average and will attend either UC Berkeley or UCLA and study to become a pediatrician. She thanks her family for making all this possible. She then talks about the wonders of the modern world: the Internet, cloning. She bids her fellow students to "reach out for the next star," to "never defer your dreams. There are only so many tomorrows." She speaks forcefully and briskly, pronouncing words sharply. She quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: "Only you know what's best for you. . . . Above all, be kind, go in love." And then she thanks everyone in the crowd in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Cheers, horns and kazoos reign.

Morrison then announces it's time to hand out diplomas, and the crowd that was loud gets louder. They break out bike horns, air horns and pan covers. There is no announcement about refraining from cheering, and it's doubtful one would be obeyed. Graduates walk to the middle of the field to receive their diplomas and then turn and walk toward the crowd, usually gesturing, as they are greeted with still more cheers. Some rate confetti—cut-up Yellow Pages —while others have balloons released in their honor. People start to laugh when math teacher Bill Steele, one of two teachers announcing graduates to the audience, begins a consecutive series of students named Nguyen. It lasts several minutes, and some people take to counting. "That's got to be at least 20 right there," says one. In fact, there are 45 students named Nguyen, and Steele soon works himself into a groove. And as he does, they cheer. Soon, the graduates are told to move their tassels, and then it's all over but the cheering. They cheer more as the class of '99 is presented; they cheer as they're told the ceremony is over and they walk from the stands, holding bouquets and leis made of flowers, candy, Chiclets and dollar bills. A car honks its horn, and people turn to wave.

"YOU DID IT!"Silverado High School, Silverado High parking lot, Mission Viejo. June 24, 6:45 p.m.

The parking lot has been transformed, with folding chairs, a blue-and-white arch of balloons and a temporary stage ringed with a white picket fence. An overflow crowd spills out onto the grass around the parking lot, where people—mostly teenagers and people in their 20s—stand. With a recording of "Pomp and Circumstance," the graduates enter wearing silver caps and gowns. They've come here from the four area high schools—Mission Viejo, El Toro, Laguna Hills, Trabuco Hills—for reasons ranging from truancy to drug abuse. In some cases, they just couldn't fit into the machinery of a conventional high school; in all cases, they just wouldn't make it to class. That has always been the problem. When the school opened in 1974, the reason most kids ended up at Silverado was that they preferred smoking to class. Which is why the school's first principal, Bailey Daugherty, used to let kids smoke in school. It's why when smoking was forbidden on campus 13 years ago, Daugherty resigned.

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