How to Celebrate Your Graduation

archived recording (oprah winfrey)

Hello, everyone. I know you may not feel like it, but you are indeed the chosen class.

kelly mest

Our mayor announced yesterday that the city would be doing a ceremony where Oprah would be the speaker, the commencement speaker, for our citywide graduation.

archived recording (oprah winfrey)

You’re also a united class— the pandemic class, that has the entire world striving to graduate with you.

kelly mest

So that’s great. You know, who doesn’t love Oprah? One of the things that I’m struggling with is how to make it more personal to our student population.

priya parker

Kelly Mest is the principal of Northside High School, a public school in Chicago.

kelly mest

These are the students that have been together for four years. Our faculty and staff love these kids and love these students. And this moment of celebration where we would finally kind of get to send them off, a culmination of their four years with us, how do we still mark that for them when there have been so many sacrifices already?

priya parker

Even when our luminaries are stepping in and doing their part, giving graduation speeches across the country—

archived recording (barack obama)

Just as you’ve been looking forward to proms and senior nights, graduation ceremonies, and let’s face it, a whole bunch of parties, the world is turned upside down by a global pandemic. But what remains true—

priya parker

Watching Obama or Oprah, it is cool that they did it. But graduation is more than just the commencement speech. Graduation is many things. It’s steaming your robe. It’s going out with your family for that special restaurant trip, and getting to bring your best friend along. It’s sitting in the hallways, signing each other’s yearbooks. And yeah, it’s getting that diploma handed to you from your principal. The celebrities that are coming out and doing their part, but if it stays at that level, the schools become an audience. It’s not an interconnected, shared experience, unique to each school. It’s beautiful, but it’s just the beginning. A commencement speaker doesn’t graduate you. They’re playing one element in a much larger community experience. We all play a role in helping our students graduate. Parents have a role, administrators play a role, the students themselves play an important role. The commencement speakers did their job. Now, we need to do ours. For “The New York Times,” this is “Together Apart.” I’m Priya Parker. [MUSIC]

Having one graduation speaker for the entire country can be powerful, because it’s a national collective experience. But we also need to have specific, smaller experiences that are for us, by us. Over the last few months, I’ve received dozens of emails about graduation, from parents wondering how to graduate their kids from home, doctoral students looking for how to mark the end of their research, from people worried about their international student friends graduating alone, with their families abroad— and from administrators like Ms. Mest.

priya parker

So where are you taking this call?

kelly mest

I’m at home in my house on the Northwest side of Chicago. There’s a total of four people and a dog in my house, so today, I am in our family room, which is connected to the kitchen.

We shift spaces per day.

priya parker

The negotiations of quarantine.

kelly mest

Yes, it’s a real thing.

priya parker

Kelly Mest has been an educator in the Chicago public school system for 20 years. And even before coronavirus, this senior class has already been through a lot. They had lost two members of the graduating class last year— one to gun violence, and the other to a car accident.

kelly mest

They’re just a really special group. And this class has been through some things that our other senior classes have not had to experience. I don’t want this to be a marker of who they are, but it’s a reality of their experience at Northside that they— in less than a year, they lost two classmates that should be graduating with them this year. I think the way that they have banded together and supported each other during good times and bad times has been wonderful.

priya parker

One example of how they banded together was a really beautiful ceremony the students ran at the beginning of this past school year.

kelly mest

But I think one of my favorite moments this year was— you know, I think it was a week into school, where some of the senior leaders contacted me and they said, you know, we just want to start kind of this new tradition. We’re in a space where we just want to gather together and mark the beginning of a year together. So they did this really sweet sunrise ceremony, where they all came to school— I don’t know. It was really, really— remember what time it was.

And they were all dressed in white. And they just sat on the back lawn— the back lawn of the school. And they watched the sunset rise together. And it was really— I’m getting a little emotional thinking about it, considering where we are right now. But it was just this really sweet moment that I think is representative of who they are as a class.

priya parker

Beautiful. So as I listen to you— a couple of thoughts. The first is the sunrise ceremony is a really powerful story. And what I hear in it is a couple of things. One is self-initiation, right? It’s a gathering that came from the students, and a way to really create a ritual that is, at some level, more beautiful than the adults could have created or thought of.

kelly mest

Exactly. Exactly.

priya parker

You can’t transition yourself to another phase. Right? Like, it doesn’t make sense for you to conduct your own wedding ceremony, right, or officiate your own funeral— I mean, by definition. But also, it doesn’t make sense to officiate your own graduation, quote, unquote. And so one thing I would just pull apart for you a bit is, what can the unique roles of the adults and the administrators be this year, that only you can uniquely do, right? You need to actually— you have the power and the legitimacy as the institution of the school to give and to grant each graduate their degree or their diploma. But then they also should be part of, at some level, creating the ritual amongst them. One of the questions I would just ask— and I don’t think you can do this in a vacuum, I think it has to be perhaps even going back to the original organizers of the sunrise ceremony— is to ask, what do we do, but also, who decides? I don’t know if you misspoke, or you meant this on purpose, but you used an interesting turn of phrase earlier in our conversation. And you said, they watched the sunset rise.

kelly mest

Yeah, I misspoke.

priya parker

And maybe you didn’t misspeak. And I say that in part because, like, after every sunset is a sunrise. And part of graduation is an ending, right? But it’s an ending, in part, to also mark a new beginning. And I wonder if, as a metaphor, you, with these students, could create almost like— if that was the call, if that was like the opening call of the year, if like the closing call was something related to a response to that morning. And— to design some kind of graduation that’s, like, a sunset rise.

kelly mest

That’s lovely.

I’m thinking I could use you to write my graduation speech.

priya parker

In order to help Ms. Mest figure out what graduation might look like this year, when they can’t physically gather, I asked if I could talk to a few of the students. And she connected me with the organizers of the senior sunrise.

ruba memon

Before high school, I was very shy. But like, after high school, like— if you told me, like, in eighth grade, that I would be talking to you like this, I’d say, no, you’re crazy.

I feel like high school has allowed me to be here, and interact, and laugh, and whatnot.

priya parker

This is Ruba Memon. She’s the Student Council Vice President.

ruba memon

I have a family of all boys, and then also my mom, right? My parents are immigrants, and then they’re also low income, so seeing my parents kind of seeing us succeed— and they came here to make sure that me and my brothers had a better education, right? So them being able to see us, like, walk across the stage and go on to college. I think it’s, like, a big thing for them, especially, since that’s the reason they came here— for us to achieve our goals. And graduation is kind of a symbol of that.

priya parker

During that call, I spoke with Ruba and two other members of the student council about what they were hoping for with this virtual graduation. And there was a lot of similarity in their answers. This is Fiona. She’s the president of their student council.

fiona

I think what makes graduation so exciting and so fun is that it’s like their whole support community that has been there for you for the last four years. And that’s the part that feels kind of the worst for me, that can’t be replicated online. I think that a lot of students right now are feeling very isolated. The challenge is just to get them engaged in whatever event we hold. It’s very easy to just write off these virtual events, that they don’t hold the same weight— but finding some way to really get people to engage with what we’re doing.

priya parker

And here’s Roshan. He’s the student body PR director. And things have changed since I was in high school. Clearly, student councils have adapted to the times. Mia, who you’ll also meet, is the marketing director. But here’s Roshan, and he echoes a lot of what Fiona said.

roshan

Well, originally, I had thought I was going to be with my friends and my family. And we were all going to have a collective memory to share. Student council did a survey about graduation, and what we wanted, what the student body wanted. And over, like, 70% of the people responded with having a shared experience for graduation. And I think, like, having that would really make us happy, because that’s all we’ve been looking forward to.

priya parker

In listening to them, I realized Ms. Mest and her colleagues can figure out how to play their part and distribute diplomas as the school officials. But how might the students create a shared virtual experience that’s for them, by them, just the way they did their senior sunrise at the beginning of the year. And they’re up for it. So we agreed that I would coach them. And then, on June 8th, as part of their graduation day ceremonies, they’ll have one hour with their classmates to run an experience for them online. But rather than just telling them how to do it, I wanted to show them how to do it. This is “Together Apart.” I’m Priya Parker.

priya parker

If you can just get a piece of paper and a pen—

as you think about a graduation, you know, different gatherings have different purposes. And as I was thinking about preparing this gathering with you all, graduation in particular is kind of a type of closing. It’s an ending of sorts, right? Like, you began your freshman year four years ago. You began the senior year with that sunrise ceremony. And now, it’s a time to close. And I think, in part because of COVID, your senior year didn’t end. It just kind of stopped, right? And because of the virus, we’re unable to begin to actually end it in the way that you would traditionally end it. And so you’re finding yourselves in a position to have to figure out, how do you develop the ability as students to help close this chapter for yourselves and for each other? OK, I’m going to ask you a number of questions. And first, just take a few minutes and write down your answers, OK?

priya parker

The first questions I asked are past oriented. To close, we first need to look back. Who’s a counselor or a faculty member that they wanted to shout out? And what’s a favorite memory of Northside, and so on?

roshan

Last I night, I remember we were the final dance for the showcase. So the last move for me was to jump off the stage. And I was supposed to run into the aisle. So I jumped off the stage, and I remember feeling something in my foot, like, crack. And I kept running, because I didn’t feel it. And I kept running. And I got all the way to the end, and then striked my last pose. And I remember, while walking back onto the stage after everything was over, I was limping. And I didn’t even realize it. And later that night, I had to go to the emergency room because I apparently fractured my heel. And I mean, it was very fun. And like, I didn’t really feel it in the moment. But it was kind of nice seeing how, like, I put all this hard work in and then, like, something fun happened.

priya parker

So Roshan is telling this kind of crazy story. I mean, the kid literally fractures his foot, but doesn’t notice because he’s having so much fun dancing at their school’s international night. And I can visually see the other kids responding. Ruba covers her mouth. Fiona’s jaw dropped. Mia is giggling. But you can’t hear anything, because they’re on mute. And what’s actually a good story feels a little awkward because there’s no audio response. One of the reasons virtual gatherings can feel so sterile is because in trying to mute everyone so you can hear the person speaking, you’re also then muting everyone else’s natural responses. And responses are the difference between a monologue in the ether and a living, breathing conversation. And these kids’ biggest fear in hosting a virtual closing ceremony with their peers next week is that the whole thing will be awkward. And here we are, and it’s awkward. I realize I need to do something beyond just asking them questions that makes them feel like they’re together, even though they’re in four different bedrooms on Zoom.

priya parker

You know, this is, again, an experiment, but you can start to feel like kind of, like, the arc of the— you know, the arc of it. And you want to do something that, like, grabs people’s attention, that makes people feel like, even when things are being shared, they’re participating. And I think a call and response cheer could be really fun. I also think your dance, like an Indian dance, particularly, student council is kind of hosting this, but you’re also— many of you are on part of the same dance team. If you did the performance, or you showed a video of the performance, and taught three basic moves to everybody— right, so it’s like keeping a call and response, call and response. And part of the awkwardness of Zoom is you kind of feel like you can throw something out into the universe, and everyone’s like, uh— just sort of staring back, because we don’t necessarily know how to be. And so I think for each of these layers to think about— if we’re putting something out, how do you include everybody in? And I would do a cheer and a dance. And the cheer would have everybody, like, screaming back at their— Zoom’s mute off. Can we actually try it right now? I mean, you can feel it now, like, on Zoom, like, how do you begin to build the energy up? And you should build it up in ways that you’ve already done before. You know, like, imagine you’re like in the bleachers of a stadium, which you’re not. You have to create the psychological stadium, you know? And getting people actually into their bodies, into their feet, stomping in their bedrooms— like, this is how you do it. – All right, everybody, repeat after me. E-I-E-I-O. – E-I-E-I-O. – Come on Mustangs, let’s go. – Come on Mustangs, let’s go. – Scooby dooby dooby doo. – Scooby dooby dooby doo. – Oh, oh oh, oh. – Oh, oh, oh, oh. – And then everybody clap— E-I-E-I-O. – E-I-E-I-O. – Come on Mustangs, let’s go. – Come on Mustangs, let’s go. – Scooby dooby dooby doo. – Scooby dooby dooby doo. – Oh, oh, oh, oh. – Oh, oh, oh, oh. – All right— and then faster, and with clapping and stomping. – Yeah, that’s pretty much it, and then everyone is like—

roshan

Yeah, I feel this is a good way to start the Zoom, or like whatever we’re using, to start this off, because it kind of makes everyone energized in the beginning.

priya parker

I agree. I agree. I think you have to interrupt the, like, everyone just staring at each other. And you know, whether it’s your captains, like, I know this is a facilitator. Like, if I’m embarrassed about something, everyone will be embarrassed for me, versus, like, if I own something, then it’s, like, oh, I guess we’re doing this. – Yeah. I think it would be really fun if, like, everybody’s equally kind of embarrassing themselves, too, which I think would be really good going into, like, the more serious reflection part. It’s like, people have already kind of let their guard down.

priya parker

They need to counterbalance the norm of being polite on Zoom and create a culture at the beginning of the call that says, not only is it OK to respond to your peers, we want you to respond, and see everyone. And we land on the idea of breaking the students up into what they call their advisory groups. It doesn’t actually matter what that is, but basically, how they divide the class into 10 groups over the school year. And they’re going to give each group time in a breakout room. to come up with a motion, and also see their advisory group friends, and then come back and do that motion or action in the main room, in front of everyone else.

priya parker

And then, very simply, I think the instruction is that it should be physical— right, physical, it’s like a chant. And Mia, or whoever is the opening cheer, models what they mean. Right— so it’s like— and it should have a rhythm. It’s like we are— and give them a give them a beat, so they all seem the same, and it build. Like, we are advisory A. And then maybe we all strike a pose. And then it’s you— I’m like, putting my elbow up in the air. And then everybody else— like, you are advisory A. You go like this. Right— it’s just simply a way to have everyone pay attention, and see, and remember each other. And because we’re over Zoom, the physical helps to counterbalance the fact that we’re not physically together.

How’s that sound? – Sounds good. The lag makes it funny— yeah, I know. And so I— and I think, again, whoever kind of is, like, hosting this whole thing, I think you can name some of that stuff. Like, the lag’s kind of funny. This is the moment we’re in— but to not fall apart laughing. You know, like whoever— I think it should probably be two of you. This is also a moment for your peer leadership. And to say— you know, yeah, we’re— like, this is part of COVID right now.

priya parker

And partway through the call, I begin to loosen the reins.

priya parker

Let’s practice you all rotating facilitation. So Fiona, you take the first one as if you’re running this conversation. What’s your most embarrassing moment at NCP? Ruba, you take what is your scariest moment at Northside. And Mia, you take what will you miss most. And then Roshan, you take the next one.

fiona

OK, so last year, when we were editing the all-school [? colloquial ?] and youth activism. When everyone was in the bin, there were two main speakers. So one of them was talking in the microphone, not sitting behind it. And basically, she fainted while talking, right? And the other main speaker got the microphone, and she just gave it to me. And I was— like, there were teachers rushing to the front. And like, they were kind of helping the main speaker— and I had the microphone. And I was, like, looking around, and I didn’t know what to do. And then, I just said, any questions.

roshan

Any questions. [LAUGHTER]

And I remember, after that happened, people started clapping. People started clapping for you.

priya parker

So a couple of things, as you practice. Over the next hour, I’m going to start letting it go more and more, so you can actually practice doing this. So Fiona, how— what was that like for you?

fiona

Like, once they started interacting with each other’s stories, and asking each other questions, it’s like, I don’t even have to do anything. It just kind of, like, runs itself once you put the question out there.

ruba memon

So what were your guys’ scariest moments? What was the scariest moment at Northside? – So it’s kind of like— it’s more personal. But it’s just that after the first semester of freshman year, I really didn’t like any of friends that I had. And they just felt kind of toxic, and I just like— I was like sort of an outsider to their friend groups, and a lot of them had already known each other. So it was, like, a really scary decision where I was like, do I say at Northside? Do I try to transfer? And then, there was a decision I had to make second semester. And it was just like, I’m not going to be friends with these people anymore. And it kind of meant that there was like a period freshman year where I just like, didn’t have a solid friend group. But it ultimately was better, because I ended up making better friends, like Ruba and Gina. But it was really scary to just have to be, like, I just have to kind of be on my own for a bit, and figure it out from there. – For sure. I feel like we went through that at some point. – Yeah. Freshman year— it’s just like, you sort of cling to, I guess, the first people you meet. And that’s not always you’re meant to be friends with. – I remember my first group. [INAUDIBLE]

– But I was also kind of, like, struggling with the idea of leaving that fan group. If I leave, then will I have any friends— like—

priya parker

This is the moment the conversation shifts. Fiona becomes vulnerable, and they just start talking to each other. And in so doing, the deeper reflection and collective meaning making begins. Who was I here? Who did I become? What were the choices that affected the course of my life here? – I feel that too. Like, I mean— I don’t know. Like, in middle school, I would just think, like, when I go to high school, I’m going to have all these friends. I’ll have an elite friend group. But it’s just, like, you know, reality hits, I kind of sat at lunch with, like, people that I knew.

priya parker

And this is great. I’m going to have you keep going on the next question, and continue just as you are, to— you can be reflective with each other. You know, like, you’re doing great. And Mia, you’re next. And again, ask us a full question, and then we’ll start moving to the future.

mia

All right, what will you guys miss the most at NCP? Can I answer, still? [INAUDIBLE] Y’all remember the gas station next to the school? That was the best place to be. I loved that place. After school, everyday, right before dance practice, I would gather my gang. I’d be, like, all right, gas station? And you’d have to ask, like, gas station? And then everyone’s like, yes.

roshan

Even if you didn’t get anything from the gas station, like, you have to go with the group. – All my money went to the gas station.

priya parker

What you basically want to do, after you ask a few questions, is get people to speaking to look forward. And so at the beginning, instead of like a closing, or gathering, a graduation is, like, a turning in and looking backwards. And you want to begin, like, what is graduating? It’s also leaving and saying goodbye. And then turning outwards, and like, you know, moving forward. So I really love having you all run this. You’re doing great. And so to continue to practice, I’m going to put the next three questions. And let’s try to do each in like— let’s see. Let’s try to do all of them in about 12 minutes.

roshan

So I want to know what everyone wants to be in the future, and like, what do you want to be when you grow up?

priya parker

And I’m just going to coach you a little bit, OK? Before introducing the question, it’s almost like you’re playing the pivot role of— we’ve all looked back. So you actually say this. Like, we’ve now spent time looking back, and looking at our last four years. And now we’re going to turn a little bit, and as we begin to graduate, think about looking forward. And in that spirit— and then ask the question. Does that make sense? So it’s like you’re steering the ship.

roshan

Do you want me to do that?

priya parker

Yeah.

roshan

OK, OK. So now that we’ve talked about what we— or what we’re going to miss about Northside, and what we like about Northside, I think we should move on to talk about what we want to be in the future, and what we’re going to do after we leave Northside. So what do you guys want to be when you grow up?

priya parker

They go on to answer this question, but I paused him here, because I wanted all of them to realize that they’re going to need to be really explicit with their peers as they guide them through this virtual experience here. – OK, what about this one? What is a conviction that you developed at Northside that you want to take with you in the future?

mia

What I took away from Northside was always take that opportunity, even if you feel, like, too scared to do it, because there are so many opportunities at Northside. Especially with student council— I remember, like, in geometry, I think, I was sitting with Rube. And she was telling me, like, oh, you should be the marketing director for student council. Go ahead, you should up. In my head, I was, like, that’s impossible. There’s no way. I’ve never seen myself as a leader for a larger group of people. So I think just taking that one step, filling out the application, it just brought out so much more opportunities, and also, like, a lot of growth that I didn’t think that I, like, had in me.

roshan

And kind of going off of what Mia was saying, I kind of relate to that, because one thing I learned was to not be afraid of who I am. Like, I said in the beginning— like, I wasn’t really sure of who I was. And like, it took me some time to figure that out. But once I did, I wasn’t afraid to show the world who I was.

priya parker

So in the spirit of a closing ceremony, we’ve turned inwards. And then, we begin to also turn outwards. And I didn’t want to have the call end without also helping them think through a bit, how they wanted to honor the two students they lost in a way that would be meaningful to the class.

priya parker

So two students in your class passed away.

roshan

Yeah.

priya parker

And when was that?

roshan

One of them was in the beginning of last year, and then the second was last summer.

priya parker

How are you thinking about doing the memorial? – Yeah, I was thinking about reaching out to their friends, because I feel like they’re the ones that could talk like more about them. – Also, maybe like a moment of silence after you talk. – It hit everyone pretty hard, and it really did help that our school was able to like create, I guess, like, events for everyone to come together. So for the first student they brought in like, live music that I think he would have liked. And then we also put down flowers in the shape of a heart on the field. And then also, for the second student, he was a basketball player at our school. He was on varsity basketball. So we held a weekend basketball event. Also, I think it was really powerful how they started off the game with, like, four players on our team instead of five. So we played four players on our team against five of the other people. That’s beautiful. – It was all, like, so sudden. And you know, like— like, seeing other people grieve, who did really know those people, like, it was just a hard time for everyone, right? And I had French class with Emmanuel the year before. And one thing he’d always do in class is he’d, like, peel the oranges we got with the school lunches. And he would just— he wouldn’t even rip off the segments. He would just bite into them like it was apple or something. And then what our French teacher would do— and she’s done this, like, a couple times now, where she’ll be like, oh, I was thinking of Emmanuel, so I want to do this for you guys. And she would just bring in bags of, like, Cuties for all of us as just a little way to think of him. That’s beautiful. I might invite you to think about the equivalent of that, like, maybe both for Emmanuel and for Jack— like, it’s like one symbol that you invite everybody to, like, just bring with them to the screen, just like an orange. Like, I wonder if— orange for Emmanuel, and to think about a different symbol of Jack. Like, a lot of— you know, ritual becomes very powerful also when it’s not necessarily verbal. So I would just think a little bit about the memorial moment. If you have an hour, you know, you would probably want to spend, like, five minutes or 10 minutes, not more than that. But I would think about how you want to remember them. And a collective act that everyone can participate in, even if they didn’t know them, it’s a beautiful way to do that. I will just say, I think that— I would do some kind of closing chant. Or if there’s, like, a benediction, or if there’s a class speaker, or just like some one moment of focus— and then I would sing a song, or close it in some way. What do you think? First of all, how do you feel right now? [INAUDIBLE] – I think this really could be a good way to give closure, because, like, these are all like the kinds of things we would be talking about if we were all still in school each other. – I was going to say the same thing. Even though it was just us on the call, like, this has made me appreciate Northside, the community, and, like, all my friends, and all of you guys even more. Like— and again, that sense of closure. Like, I feel so good right now.

mia

Just being physically apart from everyone, it almost made me feel like they weren’t in my life anymore, or like I was about to move on to the next stage. But now, it’s kind of, like, nice. And I feel like being on call, and seeing everyone’s faces, and hearing what they have to say, it’s just like being in the Atrium with them all over again.

roshan

And kind of going off on Mia again, I kind of felt as if I’d forgotten what Northside was like, because like it’s been almost, like, two, two and a half months. And talking about it kind of just brought back all the memories. And I think, like, I’m more ready to move on now than I was before.

priya parker

What we just did is pretty complicated, right? So I was both trying to create an experience for you— over the last two hours, let go of the reins, so you started doing it yourself. While you were also actually going through the experience, I could also feel that. Like, I was at that gas station with you, spending all my money. And when you’re in person, you don’t have to make so much of this explicit. It’s just— it’s more natural. But part of what you’re seeing on the call is, like, figuring out a way to navigate the transitions. And if something’s awkward, like, to be, like, well, this is kind of awkward. You know, like, to name it. And then to also know that it often starts a little bit awkward or unwieldy. And then, once people kind of settle in with a couple of good questions, and you just kind of let them talk, it’ll be very powerful and beautiful. And it’s an act of service, frankly, to give you all the space to do this together. – As we got into it, it really did just feel like a normal conversation. And it almost even felt like we were together again. [MUSIC PLAYING]

priya parker

This is “Together Apart.” I’m Priya Parker.

“Together Apart” is produced by Jesse Baker and Eric Nuzum at Magnificent Noise, in partnership with “The New York Times.” Our production staff includes Hiwote Getaneh, Destry Maria Sibley, and Noor Wazwaz. The executive producers of “Together Apart” are Priya Parker and Jesse Baker. This show would not be possible without Moe Mullen, Choire Sicha, Joanna Nikas, Anya Strzemien, Julia Simon, Lisa Tobin and Sam Dolnick. [MUSIC PLAYING]

source: nytimes.com