A Sense of Occasion

No matter what one’s leadership style may be, nor how one handles discipline in a school, it is hard not to feel for Suzanne Lukas, Superintendent of Bonny Eagle School District in Maine. At the 2009 Bonnie Eagle High School commencement ceremony, Ms. Lukas found herself being booed by the audience. Prior to the commencement ceremony, the school had circulated and asked all graduating seniors and their parents to sign a list of behavioral expectations for the upcoming event, and all of them complied. However, things were beginning to feel out of control as the ceremony unfolded, as beach balls began bouncing amidst the seated seniors, followed by a giant inflatable rubber ducky. A uniformed policeman in attendance moved one student away from his classmates and, after repeated warnings, escorted a second senior out of the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, where the ceremony was being held. All of this came after Ms. Lukas, who was presiding at the ceremony, had warned seniors to stop with the fun and games.

The Wednesday, June 17th edition of the Portland Press Herald reported that the audience began to react when Ms. Lukas refused to give a diploma to a senior following some theatrics he engaged in on the stage en route to receiving his diploma. “Throughout the ceremony,” the newspaper reported, “audience members booed and heckled Lukas, some even shouting profanities, parents and students said.” Backup police were called in, just in case the hostility got out of hand. As the article went on to say: “For days afterward, angry parents called and e-mailed Lukas and members of the school board. Some said that the superintendent had overreacted and turned the ceremony into ‘a fiasco’.”

Now there is a petition circulating among parents asking for her immediate removal as Superintendent. Likewise, the mother of the graduating senior who was denied his diploma is furious with Ms. Lukas, demanding an apology from her as well as a private commencement ceremony for her son. “This was no misbehavior,” his mother observed. “Showboating is not misbehavior.” She went on: “She [the superintendent] stole his once-in-a-lifetime dream of graduating with pride and honor…[and] left him humiliated in front of the high school.” (Quotes from the WMTW-TV website).

The superintendent wanted there to be a sense of dignity, demeanor, and refinement to the ceremony. Who wants a tradition of rowdiness to develop around commencement? The students wanted otherwise, and what unfolded was a true test of wills.

I suspect many of us have felt what it was like to be the lonely person who is attempting to uphold some standards, and at the same time to be ridiculed for being too rigid or draconian. It is a tough position to find oneself in, particularly when one is on stage as Ms. Lukas was that night. Clearly she had been required to make a quick decision, and no doubt some would, in hindsight, claim that she should have done otherwise. It is also true that, given the presence of families and relatives at a ceremony charged with so much symbolism and mixed feelings, the Superintendent might have chosen a more graceful means of showing that she meant what she said. Rather, she chose in many ways to make a clear statement, complete with consequences, and I think most of us would agree that such statements need to be made at times.

No doubt this is one of those situations where no one is going to feel good at the end—something that end-of-the-year events can, on occasion, turn out to be for a school community. Yet one of the most important things we can teach our students, as well as their parents, is that different contexts necessitate different behaviors from us, that a responsible adult is one who possesses a variety of demeanors, appropriate to the situation at hand. Not all moments of meaning, not all significant milestones in life require a “look at me” or “whoop it up” response. As Chuck Noll, former coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, used to tell his players about celebratory antics in the end zone following a touchdown, “Act as if you’ve been there before.” Life in its fullness is experienced when we are able to discern the type of behavior required for a given occasion.

While it would be wrong for those of us in Episcopal schools to read about the above and conclude, “Thank God, that would never happen in our school” (indeed, such showdowns have happened in our schools!), we can at least say that our schools are places where we seek to provide a variety of occasions for young people to learn the important repertoire of behaviors that are needed to deal with the multiplicity of experiences we will encounter—reverence being one of them, and chapel being one of those places where we practice on a regular basis what it means to be mindful of the presence of something larger than ourselves. While are hardly immune from a culture that has fewer and fewer ways of responding to situations, we do have a unique opportunity to help our students understand one of the important necessities of the adult life: developing a sense of occasion, and understanding the respectful demeanor needed when we move into the common spaces of life.