I’ve only been teaching at Five Keys since October of 2017, so this May was my first opportunity to take part in the end-of-year festivities. I’ve been to many graduations, mostly my former second- and third-graders, so I generally watched from the audience side of the auditorium.
But this time, my graduating students were adults, and I was up on the stage of the Solano Community College Theater handing out diplomas. All graduations have common elements: the director/principal/head/president greets and presents the graduating class, proud family members cheer as their loved ones cross the stage, and either a guest or a faculty member utters wise words to live by and wishes the graduates bright futures.
Two distinguishing characteristics of a Five Keys version of this ceremony are (1) most of those accepting their high school diplomas received at least part of their education while incarcerated, and (2) the age range of the graduates may be anywhere from 19 to 90, which means some of those in caps and gowns had children and even grandchildren celebrating this milestone with them.
But what stood out for me were the students’ speeches. They were so grateful to everyone who had supported them, even if some didn’t have any friends or family members there to watch them get their diplomas. They related some of the difficulties they’d encountered along the way–and to be sure, some of them have surmounted huge obstacles–but the tears that day were all about happiness, and most of the speeches focused on the future. Some wanted to go to college, some wanted to start their own businesses, and some just wanted to find a job that would keep them out of the criminal justice system.
Only two of the fourteen grads who walked the stage that day had been my students, but I felt a swell of pride not only for Jorge and Shanon, but also on behalf of all those graduating. And I enjoyed being part of this wonderful community that included my fellow educators, Jorge’s smiling auntie who carried a big bouquet of balloons, and the deputy sheriff who cut and served cake to her former inmates.
Even after I climbed into my car afterwards, I was giddy with positive energy. Although I suppose it could have been a sugar rush from the cake…