The First Shall Be Last

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  • I’ve probably attended more graduation ceremonies that I can count in my lifetime.

    Recently, I came to the conclusion that – at high school graduations, especially – maybe it’s time to flip the script. I mean, each commencement exercise is so predictable: Speeches from the valedictorian and salutatorian, remarks from the senior class officers and special recognition for the top 10 percent of the class.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m not begrudging those honors to any deserving student. If you have a child who falls into any of those categories, you both should be congratulated for hard work, dedication and all that it takes to consistently perform well academically. What I’m saying is why not let us hear from some other kids too?

    After all, every student who actually graduates has made a major accomplishment. As many will discover years after graduation, some of the students who distinguished themselves the least academically turn out to be people who have the most interesting things to say. If you take look at many of the dignitaries who are asked to come back to speak to graduation classes, they are not the necessarily the ones who were straight-A students in high school.

    Popular commencement speaker Dolly Parton says, she hated school. “Even to this day,” she’s said, “when I see a school bus, it’s just depressing to me.”

    Bill Cosby, who is a great advocate of education and one of the most sought-after speakers, dropped out of high school to join the Navy.

    I’ve been blessed to have gotten several honorary doctorate degrees, and I’ve never made a secret of my average GPA. And as much as I love to read about and hear from people who have been super-achievers for most of their lives, I know that college campuses, factories, corporations, communities and the world are made up of all kinds of people: Brilliant, average, boring and funny – so why shouldn’t a graduation ceremony include all of those people? Why not a few remarks from the class clown? What words of advice does the defensive back of the football team have to offer? What is the outlook of the kid who’s been bullied since the first day of school?

    I have a feeling even the best and the brightest wouldn’t mind sharing the spotlight on the day that belongs to every student in the class. In these days especially, when dropout rates are at record levels, the student who comes from a broken home, raised by a single grandmother on a fixed income who hangs in there, puts in the work and walks across that stage on Graduation Day is worthy of more than the role of an ”extra,” in my opinion.

    The Bible says the first shall be last, not as a put down to the winners, but to remind those at the bottom to be hopeful and to endure.

    Time and time again, the ones who get the least attention in high school go on to distinguish themselves in all kinds of ways. But I say it’s time for them to take their place at center stage a lot sooner than that. Maybe if the strengths of more average students were celebrated on Graduation Day, more below-average students would stick around until the end.

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