Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Graduation ceremonies are deadly affairs.

Somber and serious, filled with dreadful speeches direct from the rhetoric 101 factory. The traditional graduation song, "Pomp and Circumstance," is more fitting for a funeral then a celebration.

In spite of all the seriousness, the parents are always delighted. The predominately Latino crowd always seems a little perplexed by the entire ceremony, for many it's the first time they have ever been to the school. I'm always tempted to ask the parents where they've been for the past four years, but manage to control myself by keeping my jaw wired shut.

This year it's my fourth high school graduation. Teachers are not required to attend, and in fact most do not, but I never miss. I've put too much time and effort into the kids not to at least get one moment of joy out of seeing them walk the stage.

The first graduation I felt wistful, knowing that I would never see many of the students ever again. The second graduation I cried like a baby, but by the third I hardly felt anything at all.

This year I'm not sure how I feel. Nothing bubbles out, I don't feel particularly elated or melancholy.

Nine of my seniors are graduating, kids I've known since they were freshman. One would think I'd be sad they will no longer be part of my life.

Instead I just feel relieved.

The march begins and the seniors file out in blue and silver robes. Girls and boys wear the same colors at South East. The stands are packed as clusters of parents shout, blow air horns, and stamp their feet on the bleachers.

After the seniors file in they are subjected to a series of speeches not even fit for C-Span, but 4 years of high school has trained them well to sit and be quiet.

The first speaker is a former mayor of South Gate whose child is graduating, she's a squat woman who reads with about as much emotional depth as Chuck Norris. She makes references to South East's mission statement, standardized goals, and teaching standards. I'm guessing she used a rubric to write her speech.

I give her a 2.

Then out comes Flores, a school board member from District 6 who voted to let go 7200 teachers. She expounds about the importance of education and how school is the best way to succeed. "I have no doubt that someday the future president of the United States will be from this class!" she shouts.

She had better hope the future president isn't one of our teachers.

A grandfatherly old man takes the podium next, it's the superintendent, Cortines. He's the one who first suggested the layoffs. In April he claimed he would have to let go of 7200 teachers, then in May the number of layoffs dropped to 5000, then dropped further to 2000, until finally it reached a mere 500 by June.

Considering we're short staffed, I'm not sure why anyone has to be let go. Of course, I'm still wondering why he originally said 7200 jobs when the number was far lower.

Thirteen of the 500 teachers being let go are from South East, two of which I know and work with personally. They are dedicated, smart, and fierce when it comes to helping kids.

Too bad they don't have seniority. The longer you are in the system, the safer you are. Effectiveness, test scores, sponsorship of clubs: irrelevant. In LAUSD, it's years on the job that count.

Cortines begins by expounding about the wonders of education. The kids listen attentively, they don't care, it could be Ahmadinejad and they still would still cheer. Cortines thanks the teachers for their hard work, stating that South East has a 90% graduation rate and that 70% of the students that graduate go on to college.

I look over the seniors, there appear to be about 500.
An incoming class of freshman is over 900.

I'm told Cortines is now accompanied by a body guard after a group of 60 teachers getting laid off found his house and camped outside.

I look at my watch, over an hour has passed and we still haven't gotten to the names. I look over and spot one of my former students, Judith. She graduated in 2007.

"Hi, Mister!" she exclaims brightly.

She's currently studying to be an elementary teacher. She asks me about who is graduating and we trade gossip. "Whatever happened to Carlos?" she asks.


"Y'know, Carlos. He had dark skin, always wore plaid shirts."

I shake my head. I don't remember him. "I think he dropped out."

She asks about a few other kids. I draw nothing but blanks, I don't remember any of them. Judith is shocked. "But you used to teach them! They were in your room every day."

"I'm sure if I saw their faces I'd remember them." I lie.

Judith looks over the graduation. This year we have a huge jumbotron. "It's okay, but our graduation was better." she sniffs. "We were the first!"

Afterwords the principal speaks, and then we commence the reading of the names. Some kids are timid, shake the principals hand before nearly stumbling off stage. A few wave gregariously and hug him, others cry, one boy bawls like a baby.

The kids give him a standing ovation.

One of the boys blows smoke like's he's smoking a joint. The camera on the jumbotron spins away.

One by one my students graduate: Santiago, Vivian, Liz, Luis, Kathy, Jonathan, Lizette, Hector, Angel. I clap, but they can't hear me, their expressions are ones of stunned amazement.

Suddenly it occurs to me why I'm not more emotionally attached. It took me three years to realize it, but they're not my kids. I'm their teacher, not their parent. To the kids I'm important for only a short period of time, a comet passing in the night.

The ceremony ends with an impressive fireworks display. The class of 2009 marks our first graduating class that has attended South East all four years.

Good luck, kids. Good luck. I've done what I can, I hope it's enough.

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