My family went to a niece’s graduation this past weekend, participating in a rite of passage common to this time of year. In a rural state, graduating over 400 students made it a big ceremony. While the orchestra played, each of the young people walked across the stage.

Those who were used to large school exercises had bags of teddy grahams or sippy cups for young children. Though this graduating class was less than half of the thousand students found in a Chicago or a Denver suburb convocation, it was large enough to be held in an arena.  From my vantage point, I noticed definite differences in the people supporting students on their special day.

Observation 1:  The student body was diverse, but the crowd was stratified.  It was late when my family arrived, and, just as churchgoers head to the back of the pew, we moved up and up to find seating. But what seemed odd to me was the diversity I found on the top four rows of the nosebleed seats, where my group was surrounded by people of color (POC). At first, I thought others had simply been late, but no, all the way around the arena balcony, it appeared to be the same.  Why was that?

And large groups of people were seated up high–ten or twenty family members cheering  when their student walked across the stage. Excited chatter in multiple languages broke out, as opposed to the somber tone of the lower floor seats. Were these the inspired sentiments of those who had already struggled as immigrants?  Again, no answers immediately came to me.

Observation 2: The class speaker referenced as most influential…a substitute teacher. And why not?  Being a substitute can be brutal, and often thankless. A teacher’s lesson plan can be ignored or brought to life by the efforts of such an individual. This particular person was always at school, it seemed, smiled when kids walked in, and came equipped with a bag full of treats.  The student enthusiastically told the crowd that the assortment included gluten-free, dairy free, and under 100 calories.  Making a difference, it seems, can be as simple as being the person who takes the time to look you in the eye and tell you that you are worthy.

Observation 3: Across the country, this is one common piece of America. So often in the news we hear about the things that divide us, the things that we experience differently.  But here, assembled in an arena, were people of all types, beliefs, gender identities and ages.  These kids, we are reminded, are on the cusp of a step forward. Robed alike, with mortar board on, there’s something profound here for all of us. Just for a moment, we dwell on actualized potential, accomplishment, and the power of education on an individual.

The American Dream means so many things to people, and no two, I suspect, are alike.  But if we look for the champions of equity in a divided society, we must start with recognizing the value of our teachers, and the hope education gives us for the future.

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