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!"

When Davidson is done, there are awards. Deanna Thomas, who won a national Spanish contest for Christian high schools, receives the loudest applause. Her accomplishment is all the more remarkable since, three years ago, Thomas could not speak or understand Spanish. On a mission to Tijuana, she became frustrated that she couldn't help, interact or minister. She thought about the significant numbers of Spanish-speaking members in Bethel's congregation. On her own, she began to hang out with the church's Spanish ministry, listening to conversations, writing down words she didn't understand, and then going home and looking them up in a Spanish-to-English dictionary. While others marvel at this, Thomas is unfazed. Serious, intense, she says simply, "God is the reason for everything in my life." She wears this intensity as she is called to receive her diploma. With such a small class, school officials are not only able to mention the graduates' names, but also their parents', which person brought them to the Lord, and even their favorite Bible verse.

Regarding Bible verses: most of the students have chosen something that deals with refusing the world's seeming riches to instead suffer for Christ. School administrator Terry Cantrell, giving the benediction, refers to it as "the evil days that lay ahead."

With that, he sends the graduates out of the church, the congregation singing "Onward Christian Soldiers."

"DON'T MOVE"University High School, Irvine High School Stadium, Irvine. June 22, 5 p.m.

Police direct traffic into Irvine High School; many people decide to direct their cars into nearby housing tracts. As they walk onto campus, they're met by people selling flowers (half a dozen for $10), commemorative mugs ($10) and T-shirts ($10). When they get to the stadium, they find that, 30 minutes before the ceremony is scheduled to begin, the home side is overflowing and the visitors' side is filling up quickly. It's hot and sunny. People drink water ($1 per bottle), fan themselves with programs and wait.

University High is one of the best-performing, best-funded schools in the county. Out of a graduating class of 516, the program lists 74 students with a grade-point average of 4.0 or better with 11 students at 4.4 or higher.

"Look at this list," a kid in the stands says. "They're all Asians."

He laughs. He's Asian. His friends are Asian. His girlfriend isn't. "Guess what race she is," he says to his friends, who retreat in discomfort, his girlfriend rolling her eyes.

To most people's relief, the graduates enter the stadium five minutes early, walking by the aquatic center in which synchronized swimmers are practicing, past the tennis courts where pros are working on their clients' backhands. They walk over the track, patrolled by security personnel wearing two-way headsets, onto the field and are in their seats in a very brisk 10 minutes. The crowd is directed in the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem. During the latter, to the annoyance of more than a few, a man screams in Chinese into a cell phone. There's a song ("Forever Friends") and then two speeches by students. Sarah Suojanen quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald—"Don't worry about popular opinion; don't worry about anyone getting ahead of you; don't worry about triumph; don't worry about mosquitoes, flies or insects in general; don't worry about parents and don't worry about disappointment. But worry about courage." She talks about courage in dealing with the changes that come in life, summing up with something her mother told her: "You can go to a dance. The music can be great and all your friends can be there, but in the end, only you can decide whether or not you want to have fun."

Julia Chen talks about the wonderful decade that produced "a world networked by a tiny silicon chip." She tells them to "go forth and conquer. . . . I urge you to believe in yourself, to support those you love, to learn from those who came before you, and to set a good example for those who come after you."

Things move fast. By the time they present the class gift—a senior area with benches and a kiosk, plus a $1,000 grant and a podium with a carved Trojan—half the program is complete in less than 30 minutes.

"Man, they're moving this thing right along," says one man. "Good."

The man yelling into his cell phone is still yelling. The people he wanted to be here appear as if they will miss the whole thing. It's already time to give out the diplomas. Students rise row by row and are sent to the side of the stage, where, one by one, they are handed a prop diploma case as they smile at a portrait photographer, who clicks their picture and sends them onstage. The students then move the tassels on their caps and, incredibly, in one hour, the whole thing is done. Parents and friends are told they may join the graduates on the field as security personnel roll back the fences. The people come down in droves, and confusion reigns. The man is still yelling into his cell phone, wandering aimlessly around the field. Many people cannot find their graduate. One anxious father commands the rest of his family to "stay here. Just stay here, I'll go and find him. NO! Just stay here. Don't move." Gradually, families reunite. Some hug and take pictures. Others just stand quietly. Still others move virtually unnoticed from the field, walking with their parents, looking at no one.

"IT'S COOL"Emerson Honors High School, Emerson Honors High School auditorium, Orange. June 23, 10 a.m.

When people enter the new auditorium, which is painted a blinding white, they find the school orchestra warming up. The orchestra ranges in age from 8 to 18, which is how the school is set up—preschool to high school, age not as important as proficiency and understanding. The elementary and junior high-age kids don't receive letter grades. As the orchestra plays, kids wander in and out of the room dressed in T-shirts and jeans or shorts. Same goes for the orchestra, which varies from kids in ties to the untucked shirt, black jeans and white tennis shoes of 15-year-old violin soloist Jason Yoon, who will play Elgar's "Salute D'Amor" during the ceremony. The orchestra continues to practice until their director tells them they can do what they like, just be back in a few minutes. Some of the kids bolt, others run to hug teachers. The pianist breaks into the Dave Brubeck standard "Take Five," while a saxophonist varies freely between the themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. Kids move everywhere. Two of them pound mercilessly on a drum set. All this while adults sit quietly, looking straight ahead. Among them is the school's director, Dr. Glory Ludwick, a psychiatrist who started what was then the state's first private school for gifted children in 1958, using her own studies of the brain as a pedagogical foundation. Teachers will tell you she is the most innovative educator they've ever met. They'll tell you they've never heard her raise her voice in anger. They call her "amazing" and "brilliant."

At present, she's looking a bit lost, standing in the middle of the auditorium, holding a wire basket of programs someone did up on their computer. She looks around and finds a student in a KLOS T-shirt, whom she asks for assistance. But the boy doesn't want to, so he hands them off to a boy who does. It's past 10 a.m., the appointed time for the ceremony, and it's clear that it won't be starting any time soon. This apparently bothers no one. There are no teachers chasing after students, no orchestra leaders tracking down musicians. At 10:15, they discover the stage microphone isn't working. Someone asks a student to take care of it; he does.

At 10:20, the 17 graduates walk in, their camera-toting parents rushing a stage that is adorned only with a curtain, an American flag and a smaller green, yellow and purple flag with "Happy Mardi Gras" on it. The graduates range in age from 16 to 19 because designations like freshman, junior and senior are used only loosely at Emerson. A student graduates when the faculty deems that student ready. They don't count units, but graduates always have more units than they need. When a student displays "mastery," he or she is put on the year-and-a-half track to graduation, since it takes a year for college applications to be prepared, sent and accepted. And everyone who graduates from Emerson goes on to college. The academic standards are rigorous: kids are given the same classes every year; you can't get out of math or science—or art, for that matter—for even a semester. Subjects are visited constantly because, Ludwick says, "we program the brain." But she doesn't care for traditional discipline. Teachers and students work together. Students are expected to respect their teachers and do their work. Teachers are expected to get through to their kids, to make relationships with them, to motivate them. Those who can't are let go. One teacher, Sean Kelly, who taught at Colorado State before coming to Emerson, says he has never sent a kid to the office and doesn't know if there's a structure for discipline. "It's cool," he says.

In fact, there is something written down pertaining to rules, but it's barely two pages long, was written 40 years ago, and contains the directive that children are not to play "Snake in the Grass." When Kelly asks everyone to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance, several in the audience don't. Kelly presents valedictorian Alice Wu, whom he introduces as "my student and my friend." Her voice shaking, Wu says, "Thank you, everyone. We don't want to leave, but it kind of looks like we have to. So thank you, everybody." She sits down in less than a minute. The other valedictorian, Brianna Gerth, who has been at the school practically all her life—since preschool—steps up, thanks everyone, and in less than a minute, sits back down. Awards are given, not only for excellence but for integrity. Every student gets a few presented by teachers who tell stories and cry. Many of the stories have to do with kids overcoming language barriers, since Emerson has an international reputation and regularly has a significant number of international students, especially from Asia. When it's time to hand out diplomas, students come to the front of the stage as Ludwick reaches into a straw basket, draws up a rolled piece of paper, hands it to them and hugs them. The audience claps. The ceremony ends. The graduates move from the stage to a reception in the adjoining room, the orchestra playing "Pomp and Circumstance" one more time before the kid on the piano breaks into one more set of "Take Five."

"ABOVE ALL, BE KIND"Bolsa Grande High School, Bolsa Grande football stadium, Garden Grove. June 23, 5 p.m.

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.

His successor is Barry Lietz, who has been at the school for 10 years. He welcomes the crowd and says this has been a year of "new beginnings" for students who have made "choices, sometimes very poor choices." He tells the students to savor this last breath of free-spirited youth and "then go out and get a job." The crowd cheers wildly. "Or go to college," he continues. "And get yourself out of debt." More applause. Allison English, the class valedictorian, is introduced. Giggling and nervous, she says, "Maybe regular high school wasn't the place for us. It doesn't matter." English will later receive the school's mathematics award and has already received high honors on the Golden State exam. She says she wishes her classmates "happiness. Whether or not it happens is up to you. People are usually as happy as they make up their minds to be." Her voice remains cheery, but the message is practical—Abraham-Lincoln-grounded. Another speaker talks about the greyhound who cheats by jumping over a fence and catching the rabbit—who, in the end, "cheats himself of really becoming a champion."

Next, it's time to give out awards. Some of the kids on the grass become distracted and begin talking among themselves. An elderly man sitting in the back turns and tells them to be quiet. They are for a moment; then they facetiously take turns "shushing" one another. Onstage, scholarships and awards are handed out. Teacher John Andrew gives out the Bailey Daugherty award. Andrew was brought here by Daugherty when the school opened and, though he's had chances to leave, never has. There are many like him: assistant principal Sue Huff and teacher Johnel Swaim each have worked at the school for more than 20 years; long tenures at the school are common. Andrew says Silverado isn't a place where teachers are dumped, but rather where they ask to go and decide to stay. Which probably accounts for the fact that about 50 percent of the graduating class is going on to college. It also accounts for the fact that teachers and students have a unique relationship based not only on discipline but also on a realization, Andrew says, that "these kids have been through the wars." Before Andrew gives out the award, he comments on how things have changed. How Daugherty, whenever he had a student in his office, always began by saying, "Smoke 'em if you got 'em." He then mentions that he taught many of today's graduates' parents. He looks into the audience and says, "Hiya, Rick!" A man stands and waves back.

Another teacher follows Andrew to the stage. She takes out a piece of paper and begins to read. It's a student's tale of drinking, partying and fighting. Of not going to class, of discounting anything an adult says. It's a story of a young girl who becomes pregnant and is later told her baby has little chance for survival. She's advised to terminate the pregnancy but decides to have the baby. She gives birth to a baby girl she names Angelica, who lives two hours and then "passes on to heaven." She writes that her daughter's birth and death make her realize how shallow her life had been. She goes to Silverado. The teacher folds up the letter and announces that the girl is not only graduating today, but also graduating early—with honors—and going on to college. The graduates are asked to stand and receive their diplomas. They come onto the stage one by one, usually with their arms in the air. The crowd cheers, but the students seem to cheer louder for one another. When the ceremony draws to a close, Lietz congratulates them and tells them there is a reception in the school quad, but that they first must return their caps and gowns. A few good-natured boos. He dismisses the graduates, and family and friends descend on them. One woman shouts to her daughter, "YOU DID IT!" She grabs her, hugs her quickly, then does it again, this time nuzzling her face into her daughter's neck as she says, "You did it."

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