If you go to a football game, a rock concert or a fraternity kegger, you will not be surprised to find people screaming, laughing, bumping chests, ringing cowbells, baying at the moon and generally shedding their inhibitions. If you attend a wedding ceremony, a funeral or a confirmation, however, you may expect those around you to comport themselves in a polite and restrained manner.
School commencement exercises used to fall into the latter category, but they have been moving — make that descending — toward the former. The question being addressed in Galesburg, Ill., is whether to surrender to that slide or try to reverse it. And I’m happy to report that school officials there not only favor reversal but have actually managed to bring it about.
A couple of years ago, the graduation ceremony at Galesburg High School had come to resemble a circus, but without the calming influence of elephants. Students crossing the stage were dancing and flashing hand signs; friends in the audience were jumping up, whooping and raising a racket with air horns. Deluged with complaints from parents and others who couldn’t see or hear at crucial moments, local officials decided a change was in order.
They adopted several reforms, the most important of which was to establish clear rules and require students and parents to sign forms listing forbidden conduct — such as yelling, dancing, making gestures, using noisemakers and other "disruptive behavior."
The school also spelled out the consequences "should the graduating student and/or family/friends admitted to the ceremony" misbehave: The student would be barred from the school party and would not get an actual diploma (though he or she would still be considered a graduate). An insert went into the commencement program in case anyone needed one last reminder.
Administrators say the new policy produced a huge improvement. But this year, a few recalcitrants had to test the limits, and the school decided to withhold diplomas from five students. They were offered the chance to get their diplomas by performing eight hours of community service. On Wednesday, though, school officials relented, saying it was time "to move on."
In the enforcement phase, the students perceived racial bias, noting that four of them are black and the other is Hispanic. At other schools, there have been complaints that imposing commencement decorum amounts to forcing nonwhites to abide by stuffy white conventions.
There is no infallible way to define and detect "disruptive behavior," but the school did its best by stationing four observers around the auditorium, and all four wrote down the same five names during the ceremony. Are the educators racist? When I called one of the kids who were punished, Nadia Trent, she said that during her student days, she had never encountered racial bias from school officials.
In any event, bad behavior is not a product of skin color. Well-to-do white schools have their share of people who feel entitled to do whatever they want regardless of how it affects others. Back in 1999, an outdoor venue in suburban Chicago banned a local high school from holding commencement exercises there after students and parents threw marshmallows, trampled flowers, ignored no-smoking signs and insulted employees. This is a high school that is less than 1 percent black.
In the aftermath, the superintendent acknowledged the problem in terms that would have worked equally well for Galesburg: "We should talk about these things: civil discourse, courteous demeanor, following and obeying rules, refraining from unnecessary interruptions."
At a typical graduation, most people don’t need to be told to show courtesy and respect for others. But there are always some attendees who insist on calling attention to themselves. And all it takes is a handful of the unruly to spoil the experience for everyone else.
Some people think that a commencement is a celebration, and that celebrations by definition should be unrestrained. By that logic, wedding guests should be blowing noisemakers during the recitation of vows. Modern America does not lack for parties. What it increasingly lacks is rituals that treat landmarks in life with a sense of solemnity.
School officials in Galesburg may have fallen short of a perfect solution, but they at least are trying to preserve a tradition their community values. They understand that a society which treats every happy occasion as a frolic is a society in danger of forgetting that some moments are worthy of dignity, respect and even awe.