Murray Bishoff: Take away lessons at graduation

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Graduations this year in both Pierce City and Monett may have marked historic turning points for both school districts.

Outdoor graduations have been a delight, and they suggest alternatives to what have been painfully cramped indoor rituals. In Pierce City, where a faction has argued for years to build a super performance gym, something the district can ill afford, dramatically showing an alternative makes one wonder why school leaders shunned a strategy that worked so well 20 years ago, the last time it was tried.

Monett’s first outdoor graduation was blessed with glorious weather. A recorded 22-minute loop of Elgar’s first “Pomp and Circumstance” march provided as long an entrance as needed. The male school board members took advantage of the less formal occasion to all shed their neckties.

The ceremony stuck to the format of past graduations with its speeches and procedures. Students speakers Kaesha George and Blake Wright lamented the thefts by coronavirus from the senior experience. Superintendent Russ Moreland’s charge to be a leader and an agent of change hopefully struck home with graduates whose year has been anything but normal. To see an onset of nostalgia so early in life will be interesting to watch.

The most innovative change in the program came in seating the teachers not behind the graduates, but next to the stage, where they could hand out the diplomas instead of the school board members. Principal Stephanie Heman deserves credit for that innovation.

“We did it at Webb City, and it was so positive and so moving watching how students were inspired by their teachers,” she said.

Moreland and a few board members shared fist bumps with some of the passing grads, but for the most part, it was teachers and Heman sharing hugs and shaking hands with their charges of many years.

The lack of a band, particularly to play “Mister Touchdown,” was felt, if only in key moments. When it came to singing the school toast, this bunch of students stood adrift at sea. No arms locked around shoulders, no swaying together, no voices heard in the stands. It was like they were asked to sing a new song in a foreign language.

“The students had the words on a piece of paper,” Heman said. “We need to practice it during assemblies if we are going to continue that tradition.”

Sixty years ago, it was indeed sung at school assemblies as a team building exercise. Who knew that was so needed today?

One of band director Philip Soule’s trademarks has been to program a rousing march from the band repertory for a recessional. Six were offered this year and Heman selected Henry Filmore’s “Americans We” for the spirited exit.

The graduates, who had marched in with two solid lines, left their seats in straggly fashion after seemingly throwing their hats with more care than usual. They regrouped in the south end zone, taking photos and waiting for friends and family to reach them. Without a preordained procedure, the crowd that filled the west bleachers and the hillside below the field house, spilling only modestly into the east bleachers, had a time figuring out what to do once it was all over.

The crowd itself was enthusiastic, applauding without fear of disrupting the proceedings outdoors. Yet, not a single air horn sounded through the entire evening. Heman expected a smaller than usual crowd due to social distancing and the heat. There was easily room for a couple hundred more people, and those present didn’t seem too concerned about social distancing.

One other oddity was the number of police officers seen around the perimeter of the stadium. Sgt. Paul Ferguson said it wasn’t due to the racial justice protestors — all nine of them — who marched earlier in the day. Ferguson said the officers were just there to help with crowd direction, and were only on special duty, going home directly after the event ended. There hadn’t been that many officers at a graduation since 2005, when Police Chief Jay Reyes sent quite a few in to help with traffic control. Heman said the crowd may have equalled a night at a football game, depending on who Monett played.

Interestingly, there was no real jam of vehicles leaving parking lots around the stadium, because no one was in a particular hurry to leave. Everyone had a chance to say goodbye, or farewell until the prom on June 27.

The last months of the school year have required the proverbial thinking outside of the box. It will be interesting to watch its lasting effects, whether new strategies will stick around or if a majority will view it as a speed bump to pass and forget as quickly as possible. Like the school toast, educators should insist on persistent practice, permanently incorporating virtual teaching into their work plans, if only having students download assignments at school to puzzle together at home. School boards need to concentrate on resolving internet dead spots in their district.

Most of all, educators know they need to work on engaging students virtually. Much of the difficulty of these past months came from students who wouldn’t play along, knowing the consequences to them were limited. These may be the same students who won’t engage in class, who are even less motivated if not watched. If career training becomes more dependent on self-motivation and remote labor, this mighty mountain future students will have to climb has suddenly become a much clearer obstacle on the horizon.

As for outdoor graduation, Heman said, “Absolutely we will do it outside again! Got a lot of positive comments.” The big takeaway from this moment has been turn the world upside down and we, nonetheless, find a way through. Blake Wright made a good point, noting how people often taken for granted suddenly became essential in the pandemic shutdown.

That’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget. Another day is coming.

Murray Bishoff has served readers of The Monett Times since 1988. He can be reached at times-news@monett-times.com, or 417-235-3135.

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