Graduation, Giving, and Form

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For a high school teacher, graduations happen year after year. But a few stand out; you know, then and later, that they will bring something out of your life and work. This was one. Last week, on Monday and Tuesday, three different classes serenaded me before their last class with me, according to tradition. For some students, this ritual may feel awkward, but they take part in it anyway, knowing that it has meaning. For me, it was one of the most moving events (a threefold event, in fact) in all my years of teaching and beyond. Being sung to, being recognized through song, for those few minutes, does not go away when the songs are over.

Then, in the evening serenade on Tuesday, the teachers sang to the students and vice versa. The school’s drama teacher, the homeroom teacher for class 12A, sang a Transylvanian folk song to her students (with a stunning voice); as she sang, she walked around from student to student, with dance in her step, singing directly to them and looking into their eyes. When I spoke with her afterward, she said she would teach me the song.

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On Thursday we had the school ballagás (farewell ceremony, similar to graduation in the U.S. except that it precedes the final examinations), with singing processions, speeches, and awards–flowers upon flowers, song upon song. First the senior classes walked hand in hand, singing, through the hallways, visiting one classroom after another; then we all went outside into the courtyard.

Yesterday was the citywide ballagás; we weren’t sure whether we would get to have it outdoors, since the weather seemed in between this and that. In the case of rain, we were to listen to the event through loudspeakers at school. But when we arrived around 8:30 in the morning, the sky was showing good restraint. Except for a few drops, it held back throughout the entire ceremony: the speeches, the performances, the procession through the heart of Szolnok, and the release of the balloons.

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Before the ceremony began, parents and relatives greeted their children with flowers, kisses, and photos. Then Marcell Jankó (the MC–and the bassist of 1LIFE) announced the beginning of the ceremony and introduced each speaker and performer. There were three speeches–Gábor Medvegy’s 11th grade farewell speech, Marcell Bajnai’s 12th grade farewell speech, and an Headmaster László Molnár’s address; a poetry recitation by Frida Hajnal; and a flute performance by a student whom I have heard many times but whose name I do not know. In his speech, Marcell Bajnai asked, “Mit adhatok?” (“What can I give?”) This question set the tone of the ceremony and filled the day. I was asking myself a similar question, a question of many years, in a different way; I will get to that later.

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Then came the procession through the city: the seniors in the middle of the street, with two cordons of students from the ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade, walking hand in hand, on either side of them. On the flanks (the sidewalks), parents, relatives, teachers, and friends pressed along. It was crowded; toes got stepped on, and mud occasionally got stepped into. But that was part of the meaning of it all: walking together, for that short stretch, before going our different ways.

 

 

 

Soon we approached the bridge but did not cross it. (There is no symbolic significance in that; our itinerary took us leftward.) The crowd seemed more crowded; the graduates, more graduated.

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Then came the releasing of the balloons.
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Graduations happen all over the world, year after year, and with all their differences and details, they share a similar form. Given the repetition and multitude, what makes each one beat out its beauty? Why the crowds, the waving hands, the swells of emotion?

In a way, the answer is easy; it’s a rite of passage, and rites of passage matter, no matter how many millions of times they take place. For the families, this is a momentous occasion: seeing their children, siblings, grandchildren, step out into adulthood, into the next stage of their lives. For the teachers, too, there is a kind of family joy; most of the teachers at Varga are parents themselves (or soon to become parents), and so they are not only seeing their students off, but remembering, anticipating, or sometimes directly experiencing their own children’s graduation.

In the past I felt somewhat peripheral and extraneous at graduations, because I have no children and will not be able to have any at this point. I was happy, overwhelmingly happy, for my students but felt a little like an uninvited guest. Over the past year or more, I have come to know things differently. True, I wanted children but do not have any; the reasons and causes are complex and cannot be traced to one particular thing. (Those who say “you can always adopt” are mistaken; there’s no “always” here. Time really does run out, and adoption is no simple matter.) But I have something to give just as I am; I am not a perfect teacher, but I have given something to my students, and they have given something to me too. Moreover, I can give things that no one else could give in the same way, just as others have their own ways of giving.

I was fully part of the graduation ceremonies this week–not in the way that parents, or teachers with children, were part of it, but in a real way nonetheless. I cheered, sang, walked along, felt awe, bumped into people, congratulated people, met parents, and walked home along the river when it was over.

Understanding this, I see that the act of giving has a form, which resembles release. When you give something, you let it be no longer yours; you don’t cling onto it or stamp it into the ground. The recipients may then take it as they wish. For instance, the best advice is given without insistence; the person giving the advice does not try to control the outcome. Everyone has a different form of giving, but the forms have this release in common. I have been thinking and thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” which ends (please read the whole thing),

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

It takes time to find one’s form of giving, and the finding isn’t final; sometimes the form comes undone or gets dislodged. But once it’s found, the giving does its work, seemingly without end. How do you go about finding your form? For some it is easier than for others; parts of it I learned early, and parts have taken all my life so far. I think it has to do with participating in the common forms and all they hold, walking along for that short stretch, again and again. That, and taking your own way, daring to differ, and learning from the bravery of others. Yes, and knowing how to let things and people go.

My best wishes to the graduating class–and thanks to everyone for these beautiful days.

 

Photo credits: I took all the pictures except for the second one, which appears courtesy of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium website.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

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  1. From Ballagás to Bankett | Take Away the Takeaway

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