Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Graduation at Pacific Crest Community School

I sat there with tears leaking from the corners of my eyes. Tori stood behind the lectern, huddled a little forward, her face incandescent. "First of all I have to thank my parents," she said. The tassle of her mortarboard trembled. "You've been great. I wouldn't have made it without you."

We're a Norwegian-Irish-English-Scottish mix: we color up easily, and besides Tori'd gotten sunburnt two days before. She was a radiant pink; her face glowed against the black cap and gown. Emily had spoken about her: how within two weeks of starting at Pacific Crest, she'd been elected to the judicial committee, and been re-elected every year since; how she'd determined to finish a long story for her senior project, and succeeded in finishing a hundred-page novella; how she was "any teacher's dream." And how she has absolutely no sense of geographical direction, and can be made to yawn if you say "yawn." (Which she had demonstrated, there on the stage; Tori, blushing and laughing, did indeed have to yawn.)

Tori went on to thank her science teacher, who bears the improbable name of Tigerin, and her writing teacher, Julie, who helped her with her long story, and then her friends, and everybody. "I'm pretty quiet, and you probably don't know how much I like you all."

They all get introduced, and they all speak, at Pacific Crest. Fifteen graduates this year: their largest class ever, I think. I've cried at every Pacific Crest graduation I've been to. The love is palpable. The introductions are frank, verging on roasts at times; there's no attempt to mask how frustrating teaching these kids can be. But no one can walk away without being staggered, I think, at how well these teachers know the kids, how hard they've worked to make their educations meaningful, and at how much they value each one of them. And the students understand it as love, and return it. They treasure their teachers, and their fellow-students, in a way that would seem outlandish to most of their peers.

At the heart of it are Becky and Jenny, who started the school, and who have the gift, above all, of valuing students for what they are. It's all the truisms. They believe in these kids. And they really do value the kid who rebuilt his Mom's transmission for his senior project, making an automatic into a stick, every bit as much as the kid who did an elegant study of the survival value of intra-special variation. The kid who wrote and illustrated a children's book about her horse, as much as the kid who designed and taught a sea-kayaking class, culminating in an expedition to the San Juans, taking five of his classmates out to sea for three days.

I watch this extraordinary event, and I think of ordinary graduations, in which a few students may be singled out for praise, but most are shuffled across the stage as quick as may be, and it makes me sad. A graphic representation of our conviction that a few chosen people are valuable and the rest are dreck, that human worth is something you achieve by besting your peers and distinguishing yourself from the herd.

Every one of those kids could speak. Not all in elegant periods, with classical citations, maybe; but for every single one what they had to convey was more urgent than the fact that they were standing in front of a crowd. Not one of them, not even the quiet Tori, was overwhelmed by standing up in front of a hundred and fifty people. Not one felt that his or her voice could not legitimately be heard.

I can't think of any life's work more valuable, more precious, more rare than what Becky and Jenny have done in creating this school, and keeping it going for eleven years.

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