Gellman on 'Graduating' From Kindergarten

Get ready because this one is a "on the one hand … but on the other hand" column. As ever, you get to pick the hand you like best.

I just returned from Los Angeles where I saw my only grandson, Ezekiel, graduate with a group of cute and charming 5-year-olds from his nursery school. From what I was able to observe when I saw Zeke in class, I would say he graduated with honors in finger painting, magna cum laude in crayons, summa cum laude in knocking down things made with blocks; undoubtedly, Zeke was the valedictorian of snacks.

On the one hand, I believe that the proliferation of kiddy graduations is something of a problem. There are graduations from preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, art school, cooking school and bartender's school. Zeke is in a karate school that has invented new colors for his Gi (karate belt) which allow him to graduate several times before he goes through the traditional white, yellow, orange, green, brown, black belt graduations. Basically, every school where children are ushered in now seems to have some form of graduation to usher them out.

My concerns about the explosion of graduations are not just that they're silly. My main gripe is that they distort the nature of learning. Graduations send the message that learning has a beginning, a middle and an end—and this is just not true. The only graduation from learning is death. In the religious world, even death is the continuation of the soul's spiritual learning in the world to come. Any marking points or ceremonies along the path of our lifelong learning are both artificial and misleading. The diplomas we hand out imply that you have completed something, but anything worth learning cannot ever be completed. Of course, there is a need to credential professionals and academics, but even these graduations hide the deeper truth that their most important professional learning happens after and not before they receive their diploma.

Premature graduation can actually be an obstacle to future study. Churches and synagogues are struggling with the problem of adolescents who end their religious education after their b'nei mitzvah or confirmation ceremonies. Their religious graduations have apparently conned them into believing that at age 13 they know enough about their traditions and their faith to last them their whole life. True learning never ends, it has no graduation. True learning is learning for its own sake, not for the sake of the little piece of paper with the blue ribbon around it.

On the other hand …

Let us not forget that what all these graduation ceremonies are celebrating is learning. How bad can it be to take a moment, even a slightly artificial moment, in the course of lifelong learning to say, in my favorite Australian expression, "Good on ya!"? We are subjected to an endless and proliferating series of awards shows on television. Why not, in the face of a culture that gives awards to sitcoms, stand and cheer for our children who are learning things? Are there any members of our society who are more worthy of being honored?

Graduations also make our far-away goals more tangible and therefore encourage and motivate us to achieve them. In the video montage that was a centerpiece of Zeke's graduation from nursery school, Blake, one of his classmates said, "I want to grow up to be a plastic surgeon like my daddy." I am not ready for Blake to work on my nose just yet, but his graduation was a moment for him to look to the far future and believe that it was not too far for his dreams. By the way, Zeke said he wanted to be a fireman. I am going to ask Blake to have a talk with him.

The final, best reason to embrace these silly graduations is that it gives our children a chance to see and remember the one thing they must never forget—and that is the gift and the blessing that they are not alone. In a big, scary world filled with things that bite, they must know that there are adults who love them and will protect them and will be with them as they grow into the light of their own new days. At his graduation from nursery school, Zeke saw his mom and dad and his grandpa and grandma smiling and waving to him. He waved back to us and smiled. If you need any other reason than that to go to your grandson's graduation from nursery school, your heart is made of stone.

OK, maybe there aren't two hands.