The Parish stepchild (youngest daughter) graduated today. Several of us who contributed to this glorious outcome sat in the too-stuffy sanctuary of The Gate Church—formerly Cathedral of Praise World Outreach Center back in the 90s when hubris related to global outreach dominated Pentecostal/Charismatic ministries—and endured sixteen speeches. The Reverend Brunet was in town from one of those liberal, eastern states, so watching her enjoy her first small-town graduation in Oklahoma was fantastic.
Two young ladies gave the invocation, which was the first time Jesus' name was invoked this day. By day's end, he was curled up at the right hand of the Father with his hands over his ears telling his beloved children his ears needed a rest. They didn't listen. Dani looked mildly appalled that the prayer ended "In Jesus name," but, well, it's Oklahoma, and we know how to do civil religion like no one else. (Apologies to Texas and South Carolina; I actually think they're the best.) The National Anthem followed, which, thanks to a wise music teacher, proceeded at a brisk pace. This would be followed by a speech from the class president and then finally sixteen speeches: 15 valedictorians and one salutatorian—worst second place finish ever!
First things first, I suppose, before getting to Jesus. Why the hell are there 15 valedictorians? And who told these kids that a valedictory address was about their accomplishments and their friends and their shout-outs and all the attendant narcissism that results when you tell 17-year olds that they're special? There were sixteen speeches today; from that list, I assure you, the representatives of Piedmont High School have three very special students out of sixteen. There were others, I'm sure, scattered throughout the class, but they didn't take "valedictorian track" classes to earn the right to masturbate their egos in front of classmates, family, friends, and the Lord on High (Jesus).
Fifteen valedictorians. The purpose of a valedictory address is to say goodbye. A representative from the class, normally chosen based on academic performance, is selected to say goodbye to the school, administration, teachers, coaches, lunch ladies, etc., and to offer a bit of encouragement going forward. The task of the commencement address is to offer wisdom, insight and encouragement, and it is normally offered by a distinguished guest. PHS apparently has confused the two, allowing sixteen different people to say goodbye and offer their own 18-year old wisdom. This is a bad idea for many reasons. Of the sixteen speeches, three students showed any wisdom at all beyond "hard work pays off," and "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for my family." Three students distinguished themselves because they understood the context, and because they have contextualized personal suffering and tragedy, thereby gaining wisdom that their classmates lack.
One young lady was painfully aware of the plight of her classmates, the ones not wearing the white robes (and isn't that ironically symbolic in a church?). Many of those students have limped to graduation. They have been victimized, abused, neglected, assaulted, bullied, ignored, and despised. Graduation is not a celebration for them; it is salvation. They are not the right kinds of kids. They did not have the same advantages as the almost uniformly anglo valedictorians (two girls were of mixed race, I believe). Hard work did not pay off for them. Their parents might not have been involved. God did not show up when He was supposed to, so this young woman told the truth; in beautifully lyric language she spoke of internal resolve, hidden pain, the fear of failure, and the conviction that what we need is within us.
Dani and I were tempted to cheer, but the room was discomforted by her words. Why didn't she, like one of her fellow valedictorians, aver that she would be "nothing without Jesus?" (Really, nothing? Like a vapor or really nothing?) She didn't shout-out to God or Jesus or any deity. She told the truth. The strength to endure high school is not found in prayer or church or gods who don't come when needed; rather, it's found in discovering deep wells of resolve, sometimes cutting or drinking or smoking or fucking or anything that makes you feel alive and important, anything that makes it possible to endure the hallways yet one more day and watch the most upside down hierarchy of all time finally come to its well-deserved end. Students crossed the stage, accompanied by a very simple judgment, the most sincere calculus of all time: applause, screeches, shouts, their name aloud and all the other noise their friends and family could make. Many crossed to polite applause, shuffling, wanting it to be over, for the longer-than-fuck stage to be shortened by half. Many were clearly superior athletes, cheerleaders, beautiful people, and the cacophony was a hymn to the beauty, arrogance, and foolishness of youth. They are on top of this weird hierarchy now, but for many of them, that all changes next week, or tomorrow.
As another young woman read an original poem about the foolishness of a system that encourages meaningless content and substandard instruction while ignoring passion and creativity, the air in the room got dense with concern. Would she go too far? The collective will was for everything to go without a hitch, to listen to the platitudes, to cheer for the particular student/child who is passing this increasingly dubious landmark. What for? She asked repeatedly. Why? Why did we do all of this? If she had it to do over again, she said, she would study less, believe the bullshit less, and really live. She is wise enough to realize that, like a trophy after a sporting event or state championship banner, many of the prizes conferred in high school (hell, life) are no prize at all, but a carrot to motivate us to conformity. How did she get so wise so fast?
There were three other students who refused to call on God. One young man lost a father. One young woman a home and possessions to an F5 in 2010. Another seemed to have no significant loss, but seemed to agree with the young man who'd lost his father: we are our own guardian angels. It was a courageous thing to do in a church, surrounded by the good Christian folk of Piedmont. I'm sure the youth pastors of the other eleven told them they'd done well, had stood up for their faith, had shown courage. The young women who'd invoked the name of Jesus took a bold stand for the Lord. Or some such bullshit. It is not an act of courage to call on Jesus in a church surrounded by Christians and affirming peers and parents. That is an act of conformity, one that upholds the status quo. It gives credit to God, while the "children of the lesser gods" nurse their scars, hide from their memories and worry over the babies growing inside them, just wishing this final act was over. One final ritual and then salvation, in a church of all places.