Over the past seven or eight years, as “homestay mom” to over a dozen high school kids (from Japan, China, Taiwan, Mexico, Thailand and Korea), and with kids of my own — I have been to a lot of graduation ceremonies. Bus service is good from where we live, so these kids have attended four different secondary schools in our city. Each school is a large urban facility and the graduating class sizes are always around 300 kids – sometimes more. The shortest grad ceremony I’ve been to was three hours long; the longest was close to five hours. I’ve had time to think about what these mean. And the “recognition ceremony” personality is different for the different schools.

I don’t like to generalize too much, but I’d say the overall public perception of these four schools is:

School A: an inner city school with a focus on arts and trades, not regarded as an ideal school (my own son went there and we LOVE it – but some of our friends questioned his decision)
School B: a very academically-oriented school known as one of the best in the province; as well as academics, it has a focus on arts and athletics (our daughter went here briefly, then she was home-schooled, and then she went to music college)
School C: an “edge of the city” school with a decent academic reputation as well as being recognized for athletics and environmental sustainability
School D: a school near the city’s university with a well-rounded program and lots of athletics

I’ve been able to compare the values that leap out in these schools and again, without generalizing too much, there is a noticeable difference in several things but one in particular is the ratio of how much the kids take charge of the final ceremonies. In some schools the teachers do it all but in others it’s almost completely up to the students. To me it seems that the two schools where students more or less completely planned and ran the ceremony were the schools “best-loved” by the kids I know. And one of the schools where the grad is much more teacher-organized happens to be a school that two of my kids didn’t like, in fact they transferred away from it, in spite of its great reputation. One is just making that choice and I suspect he’ll do well once he makes the change. The other was several years ago and he did do just fine – now happily at college. Obviously this is highly anecdotal, but I know which ceremonies I have enjoyed the most (never the teacher-planned ones).

I suspect it’s about the notion of perfection. Some schools have a philosophy that allows for more experimentation and more mistakes and they’re even willing to present themselves that way to the huge auditorium of parents and grandparents at the final ceremony. I think these are hidden values that are passed down. And of course here, in this city, the school you attend isn’t just based on where you live — it’s possible to choose a school outside of your catchment area. So a school with a specific reputation will attract different students. The perfectionist kids may well end up at the perfectionist school and they may be quite happy to not take the “risk” of a student-run grad. As always, education is a complex topic and there is no one “best” way.

But we do move through the generations passing along a set of values about learning, competitiveness versus collaboration and even the role of compassion. My bias is towards giving kids the opportunity to make mistakes even if they don’t present something perfect to the world. It’s how innovation occurs. At the same time, I want zero slip-ups when I’m at the dentist, so perhaps I’m not giving a completely consistent point of view here….. but I do hope my dentist has a hobby where he can make a mess and enjoy it! It may be about balance.

And, in a different but related train of thought, it is amazing how a human mind can protect itself by re-framing events. I was astonished to receive the gift of these dolls. They mean something that the giver may truly not understand at a conscious level and yet, from her, they are the most perfect gift possible (Vicky you know what I mean here! I can’t wait to tell you everything!)

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