By Miles Postema, Board of Education Trustee
It hardly feels like graduation season with snow on the ground in the first weeks of April but we are rapidly approaching graduation. People often ask me my favorite thing about being a board member. It’s a pretty easy answer. Every board member looks forward to graduation. It is a rite of passage; the most iconic symbol of the transformational power of education. Between my own graduations, the ones I have attended for family and friends, my work at Ferris State University and my volunteer service as a school board trustee, I have attended nearly 200 graduation ceremonies. From my seat on the stage, I have watched more than 40,000 graduates crossing the stage at the Deltaplex or Wink Arena.
Of course, I don’t remember all of those graduates but there have been some memorable moments. Some stride across the stage with great confidence and others a little nervously. I have watched a graduate cartwheel across the stage, though I do not know the difference between a cartwheel and a round-off. I have always had mixed feelings about families cheering their graduate since some get a lot of cheers and others little or none. Often the cheers for one drown out the name of the next graduate. I understand it is a moment of family pride. One time a student bear hugged my boss, the president, though he may have shook his hand too. There are a lot of little moments that happen during ceremonies over the years. I remember one time a brother, with card in hand, coming to a River Valley graduation to honor his brother who was graduating, but the graduate apparently decided not to participate in the ceremony at the last moment. I felt bad for both.
I watched a wheelchair bound student at Ferris, Jim Bourdlais, injured in a horrific automobile accident, take his first public steps across the stage to receive his diploma. While he stood everyone else on stage and in the audience stood too, which was fitting. I will never forget that moment.
My favorite graduation was last June when my daughter crossed the stage at the Deltaplex. I looked forward to handing her a diploma for thirteen years. I suppose it seems silly to think about and look forward to an act that took all of ten seconds, but I can tell you that I spent many years thinking about what that would be like and spent all that time looking forward to it. As the board president, I made the last remarks before the graduates crossed the stage. Lots of events turn out to be less than you anticipate but that moment was even better than I imagined it would be. My father passed away just two days before the ceremony but he would not have wanted that to cast a shadow over her graduation. I spend time in every graduation thinking about the people that cannot be there to see those moments because they have passed away or because they cannot attend for other reasons. I confess there is a lot of time to think while sitting on stage.
I know that some reading this article will think it is some kind of sadistic torture to sit through 200 graduation ceremonies. I am not going to lie and tell you that every speech is great or every speaker memorable. That just isn’t so and often you have to sit through hundreds of other graduates to see the one you came to see cross the stage. The best advice I ever received as a speaker at graduation was from my good friend and former colleague, Dan Burcham. He always reminded me “it’s not about you” and “shorter is better.”
In 2009, I ran into a guy that attended a Rockford graduation the night before where I gave the school board president’s remarks. He said without any prompting, “Your speech was the best.” I should have left it alone but lawyers aren’t very good at that. I just had to ask why my speech was the best. I should have seen his answer coming; “Yours was the shortest.” That’s one question I wished I hadn’t asked.
One of my colleagues at Ferris once asked me if I could go to a graduation every day and while I don’t know if I could make a job of going to graduations, I do enjoy attending them. Sitting on stage you can see the families in the audience and you can see the faces of the graduates as they cross the stage. It’s the best seat in the house and I often bring my camera to snap a photo of graduates I know. For a couple of graduations I was foolish enough to try to get a snapshot of every graduate.
What I most enjoy about graduations is seeing and hearing of those students that have overcome significant obstacles or adversity to cross the finish line. Some students have a relatively trouble free path to graduation, but I am always amazed to hear the stories of a graduate’s grit and perseverance in the face of obstacles and adversity to obtain their diploma or degree.
I hope to see you at a graduation ceremony this spring. Hopefully, it’s not still snowing in June.