During the month of June, I have had the privilege of speaking at two commencements at Episcopal schools. One was a twelfth grade commencement at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, South Carolina; the other was a fifth grade graduation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School in Coconut Grove, Florida. In two very different contexts, I was reminded of the importance of how we finish things in our schools, be it with individuals leaving or entire classes graduating.
We need to finish things with dignity and a sense of occasion, for finishing is no small thing in whatever context. These “leave takings” say so much about the quality of life in our respective communities, both past and future.
In both situations I saw young people who evinced a sense of appreciation for the importance, even the solemnity, of the day. They knew what they were doing and they went about the commencement exercises with a sense of confidence that I rarely see in adults at big events or ceremonies. Clearly, they took these events seriously. Of course, they had been rehearsed well, but it was a matter of more than just rehearsal: these young people knew this was a special event, an event that demanded a particular demeanor from them.
They also seemed to exude a sense that, in being the “stars” of these events, they were representatives of the schools they so loved. I suspect in both cases their regular attendance in chapel services, over the years, bestowed upon them a “literacy” of sorts, an ability to read special situations and respond accordingly. In a world where so often “one size fits all” when it comes to behavior in public, I saw in both the twelfth graders as well as the fifth graders a regard for the occasion and a devotion to the school that had brought them to this occasion.
I shook many hands of graduates in both situations, and I was struck by the degree to which most of them looked me in the eye as they did so. This, I know, is something many of our schools teach to students, and it is no small matter or simply a relic of outmoded etiquette. It speaks to a sense of fundamental respect for each person that we greet, and it is something we cannot take for granted. In a world where it takes a lot for many people to glance up from their iPhones, a respectful acknowledgement of the other person one is meeting is, in part, a sign of how one seeks to engage seriously and hospitably with the world.
Thirdly, I got the sense that—as is the case so often with our students—the maturity and grace shown by these graduating students on these occasions had a deep influence on how their parents and family members regarded the ceremony. Had these students been less respectful of the occasion or treated it with a casual air, some of their parents most likely would have responded in kind. Instead, the parents and families understood what was at stake in this particular context, and many may well have been taking their behavioral cues from their graduating sons or daughters. To be sure, that demeanor did not inhibit anyone from responding with warm appreciation and good humor when it was appropriate.
In both situations, as is so often the case with our commencement ceremonies in Episcopal schools, these events were done within the context of worship. There were prayers, hymns and songs, and musical offerings that reminded all of us that this is a day not only to congratulate and celebrate the graduates, but to praise God. As is the case in so many of our schools, God is acknowledged in our going out and our coming in, as the psalmist puts it. How we enter, how we leave are key points in which God is honored and suitably praised.
Contrary to what can be very common in commencement ceremonies these days, the day is more than “just about me,” the graduate or the parent that is whooping it up in the audience. How we leave says a lot about how we have lived our lives in a given place. It is a time for graceful and respectful acknowledgement of the roles played by so many in bringing us to this day, including God’s role.
Some of you reading this may well be leaving your school at the end of this month. Over the past few weeks there have been many wonderful and heartfelt good-byes in our schools in honor of departing school leaders or those who have concluded their many years of service. This time of year, some may also be reflecting on how things ended with the closing of the school year and all of its attendant ceremonies.
What have leavings been like for you, this June? How have they been for your school community?