Earlier this month, as each high school graduate approached the microphone at the synagogue we attend to discuss their future plans, I shrank back in my seat. Then I looked at my oldest daughter in the seat next to me. She stared straight ahead.
As a high school senior, she too had reached a milestone. But we both knew there would be no community celebration like this for her, nor even a commencement ceremony. She’d spent the past year out of state at a therapeutic boarding school. There, she’d worked hard on her emotional health. She’d also managed to recover more than two semesters of missing credits, lost before and during the pandemic. It was a monumental feat. Still, at the finish line, she came up short by a single class credit.
The diploma she’ll soon be granted by that state is “general.” It will allow her to enroll in community college classes but is short of what’s required to enter a four-year school. What’s more, she didn’t get to cross the stage with her friends and classmates back at home.
Instead, late last month, she dressed in a cap and gown and walked to an iPhone recording of “Pomp and Circumstance,” surrounded by her therapists and other kids who are still struggling to stay on track.
For these kids and millions more like them, perhaps we need to focus less on pomp and instead celebrate the circumstances they’ve overcome. Staying in school and persisting is worthy of as much honor as getting stellar grades and gaining admission to top-tier schools.
Graduation is much harder these days for many students. Overall, national high school completion rates are steady, but preliminary data suggests downward trends in some parts of the country since the start of the pandemic. And far fewer high school graduates are choosing to continue their education. The number of students enrolling in college has decreased by 1.3 million over the past two years.
The graduating class of 2022 may be remembered for being resilient. But coming up behind them are students who are finding it harder to keep pace. Studies show that as many as one-third of younger students are already missing reading benchmarks — critical indicators of future success in school. Their academic challenges are exacerbated by a pandemic-era youth mental health crisis, as young people face record levels of depression, anxiety, stress, and suicidal thoughts.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been “envy scrolling” my social feeds, where proud parents are posting prom pictures, commencement photos, and news about the prestigious colleges their children will be attending.
The statistics are staggering and so too are the difficulties kids face in getting the extra academic support and mental health services they need to learn and one day make it to graduation. Many parents don’t have the resources to send their children off to intensive mental health programs, like the one our older daughter attended, or to hire academic tutors.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been “envy scrolling” my social feeds, where proud parents are posting prom pictures, commencement photos, and news about the prestigious colleges their children will be attending. I feel sadness and guilt because there are times my daughter tells me these milestone moments were stolen from her. But I also summon shared pride for these other kids. Because as I look at their faces, I remind myself that many of them have overcome incredible odds themselves.
Behind their smiles are complex stories. There’s the beautiful young grad once sent out of state for addiction treatment. The scholar-artist whose mom battled cancer. The athlete who endured domestic violence and divorce in her family. And the life-of-the-party who quietly agonized for years about coming out as trans. Both my daughters know many other peers who have survived sexual violence, self-harm, and eating disorders. And they know of a few who never made it to graduation at all, including one boy they knew from the neighborhood playground who is in prison.
For the proud parents of those kids, I upgrade my usual Facebook likes to hearts, because I know the circumstances they and their families have faced. Meanwhile, in my own feed, I repost something I find in a parents support group reminding everyone that this time of year is hard for some families because not everyone will go to prom, not all kids will graduate on time or be able to afford college, and not every high school experience is a positive one.
While there is greater awareness of the unseen challenges some kids face, and many schools and mental health nonprofits are adding needed support, the crisis shows no signs of abating. Teachers in grades 4-12 want a “broader definition of student success to include both academic and non-academic skills,” a survey shows.
My own husband, who teaches fifth grade, sees firsthand the looming crisis for the next generation. Some of his students are showing significant levels of anxiety and depression. Others are more than two years behind in learning. And he predicts that it’s very likely these challenges will follow them for years, and potentially even into high school.
This summer, my older daughter will try to recover that final class credit. She then hopes to enter community college in the fall. Her younger sister, just a year behind, had to change schools to overcome her own emotional and academic challenges. A recent D+ in a class was as much cause for celebration as the A’s on her transcript.
Recently I asked both my daughters to reflect on their high school experiences. They admit that when they were much younger, they dreamed it would be like “High School Musical” and “Glee,” filled with dancing on cafeteria tables and singing tunes like “We’re All in This Together” and “Gotta Go Your Own Way.” It occurs to me that both those songs are perhaps more fitting soundtracks for this generation of grads than “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Steve Majors is a nonprofit communicator and author of the memoir “High Yella.” He lives in Montgomery County, Maryland with his husband and two daughters.