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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Bay View's graduation in the news

by folkbum

I hate to do this kind of thing, because my rule as a blogger is that I don't, I just don't, write about the specifics of my job. This is in part to protect myself and in part to protect those I work with, but mostly to protect my students, who just don't need me putting their business out there for all of you to read.

But I am led to believe that the graduation ceremony of Bay View High School, where I teach, which I attended and helped with Monday night, is the big topic of discussion on the right-wing talk radio today, following a report on WTMJ-TV last night. It is also the subject of at least one rightie blogger's postings today, as well. WTMJ's report is here. If you can't stream video, the text of the story is there, too.

Let me say, first, that in past years I have attended and been on stage for a number of graduation ceremonies in the US Cellular Arena, in the Milwaukee Theater next door, and in other large, noisy venues. At none of those previous graduations has the behavior of the students or the joyous outbursts of the crowd been an issue, even though those students and those crowds were just like the ones at issue Monday night. That's because at all of those previous graduations, the school administrators have both anticipated the behavior and welcomed the celebratory and participatory inclinations of those in attendance. Indeed, it has been my personal experience that when the speakers on stage set a tone and pace that's consistent and attuned to the crowd, things run smoothly and everyone goes home happy. Of all the profoundly moving experiences I have had as a teacher, among the best are moments when I have read at graduation the name of a student who everyone thought was going to be a dropout or dead or both, watched him dance proudly toward the principal and his diploma, and heard the roar of an appreciative and joyful crowd. Sure, it can be hard to read the next name over the din, but you do it anyway, and the crowd catches on, and figures out that it's time to celebrate another young person's achievement.

That's what a graduation ceremony is all about.

This year's ceremony, unlike even Bay View ceremonies in previous years under previous administrations, was run in way that punished, literally in some cases, that kind of joyful participation, what is standard at graduation ceremonies across MPS and indeed in schools across the country. (Search YouTube sometime for contemporary graduation ceremony videos, and you'll see kids of all colors, classes, and creeds dancing their way across the stage, and you'll hear audiences of all sizes and shapes cheering along and occasionally even drowning out the speaker at the mic.) The whole problem was that the ceremony became a fight between fussy and unrealistic expectations of decorum and the students' joy. And the crowd was clearly on the side of joy: The student toward the end of the night who not only wanted to do a little dance but refused to go back to the side of the stage and start her walk over--she became the hero. She earned a standing ovation that was not afforded to the principal or even the valedictorian.

What's fascinating is that WTMJ has posted the full, unedited interview with their single "witness" to the "out of control" graduation ceremony. There is no transcript of that interview, but you can watch the video here. It's five minutes, but if you watched or read the first story I linked above, I beg of you, please go watch these five minutes. You'll find that the woman interviewed tells essentially the same story I just have--that the night would have gone smoothly if the administration had "picked its battles." The woman, a veteran attendee of many MPS graduations, certainly knows exactly what I have written above, that when students and parents are given space to express themselves, rather than being scolded and literally pushed away from their joy, things go great. The woman even clearly says that Bay View shouldn't be judged by this night. None of that made the piece that ran on WTMJ last night, and I anticipate that none of that made it into the talk-radio bloviations or the conservative blog blather.

(I do want to note that her complaint that the police had been called and barricades had been set up is a distraction and unrelated. The police always block Kilbourn Ave. off after graduation ceremonies at the US Cellular Arena or Milwaukee Theater, just because it cuts down dramatically on the number of grandmothers who get hit by cars.)

To be clear: The woman says she didn't see anything being thrown at the principal, and neither did I, though immediately after the ceremony (which was cut short only in that students didn't wait for the recessional music and simply left the floor of their own accord) I was in the corridors of the arena helping to move students along to the out of doors and I suppose I may have missed something. No parents left the stands to rush the floor. No students acted aggressively, with the exception of the one noted above who pushed past the principal--and even then, neither I nor any of the staff or students whom I have subsequently talked to about this thought she was targeting the principal or likely to do her any real harm.

The crowd's expressions of disapproval with the way the ceremony was run, something that, believe me, I have never seen before at an MPS graduation, cannot be condoned. But I understand completely why they reacted that way. Obviously, the Bay View staff has some things to work out among itself about how graduations should be run in the future. But please, understand this if nothing else, especially those of you who feel this just confirms your own sick belief that black students and their families are "thugs" who don't know how to act: The failure of this week's ceremony lies entirely with the poor planning and unrealistic expectations of the administrators who badly mishandled what, in every other school in every other year, is the most joyful and exciting moment of a graduate's life.

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