Josh attends a large, inner-city High School, which produced 582 graduating seniors. Because of the size of the graduating class, the ceremony was held in the civic arena, where the Orlando Magic play. I refuse to call it by its current “official” name, because at some point, the greedy arena management will sell the “naming rights” to some other disgusting example of corporate arrogance.
We entered as soon as the doors opened, and found good seats down close to the floor. The floor was set up with rows of folding chairs for the graduating class and the teaching staff. A stage was set up at one end, with seating for the school management staff and the class officers. Three-fourths of the lower bowl filled up with spectators quickly (the remaining fourth was behind the stage), and people began to fill the upper bowl. We were amused by parents who wandered down to our seating area minutes before the ceremony began, looking around with confused expressions, wondering how it was possible that there were no good seats remaining for them in their own private universe.
Before the actual ceremony began, a school official made a little speech asking the audience to “respect the solemn nature of the occasion” and refrain from making lengthy, loud or distracting noise that might prevent others from hearing the names of the other graduates as they were announced. This request was largely ignored. It's an inner-city High School, and a lot of these families may have never welcomed a High School graduate before. The sense of joy and excitement was palpable.
The class filed in, wearing their caps and gowns, and the principal made a speech in which he listed the achievements of the class. He pointed out the large number of graduates who were moving on to colleges around the country. Then, for reasons known but to God, he decided to name those colleges, alphabetically. There must have been 50 or 60 of them, and while I’m sure he would have preferred to name only the most prestigious universities, he felt obligated by the spirit of equality to name them all, including numerous community colleges, second-tier agricultural and mechanical colleges, and trade schools, such as the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Occasionally, when he named a university, a cheer would erupt from some part of the arena, and a student would leap to his feet, arms raised in celebration.
The class Salutorian and Valedictorian gave what can best be described as “typical” High School graduation speeches, nearly interchangeable with those given at my High School graduation almost half a century ago.
Finally, the diploma ceremony began. Students moved in a seemingly endless line to the right of the stage, their name was announced, and they would then cross the stage, shaking hands with the school management, receive their diploma, pose for a photo with the principal, and exit on the left of the stage. It would have been unbelievably tedious except for two things: The shrieks and joyous dancing that would erupt at some part of the arena when the name was announced, and the names themselves.
I noticed some things about the last names of the graduates right away. For example, there were lots of Browns and Greens, but only one Black and one White. There were as many graduates named Nguyen as Hill or Ortiz.
The first names were the real entertainment. I don’t live in the inner city, and I have a plain-as-vanilla name. Inner city parents give their children pretty interesting, decorative names. Some of them are charming, some of them are amusing, but few are boring.
For example, there were girls named Shardonnay and Tiarra. One name was incredible: Marquis DeSade Burns. Two names were funny, not because of the names themselves, but because of the images they evoke in my head: Nicholas Dyer Strates and Ricky Ricardo Moore.
But the best name of the evening was the name of a future president of the United States, a man with instant appeal to all racial, religious and ethnic groups: Jeremiah Hakim Rodriguez-Schwartz.
The ceremony wrapped up with a terrific, heartfelt speech given by the Senior Class president, Brooke Thomas, and the class exited the building. Unfortunately, no plans had been made to reunite the graduates with their parents. The throng of students exited the building by one exit, the families by another, and all were funneled to a parking lot, where they were left to find one another in a seething mob.
It was a sad metaphor for life after graduation, as though the school authorities wanted to send the message, “We’re through with you now – fend for yourselves.”