Rites of Passage

In last week’s post, I wrote about celebrating the achievements of our recent graduates. I also took a moment to highlight the work of three of my students who persevered through great personal challenges to successfully complete their programs. I attended commencement last week and was able to see the students at the ceremony. I’m not too embarrassed to admit that a tear or two was shed. I can get choked up during these rites of passage for my students.

I’ll be honest. As a teacher, I love these rights of passage. I love the ceremony around students’ identities formally shifting from being novices to being recognized as accomplished. Sure, the events can be long, and the speeches can be tiresome and sometimes repetitive. But the formality with all of the “pomp and circumstance” and fancy regalia communicates that this is a big deal in the students’ lives and for the work of the scholarly institution. Collegiate life rightfully stops to recognize and celebrate this rite of passage.

I’m in a unique spot this year. Besides my students’ graduation this past weekend, I also have the honor of attending my daughter’s commencement ceremony at her university this coming weekend. While I won’t be wearing my official doctoral regalia or anything, I will be attending to celebrate her achievements and to recognize this formal rite of passage for her academics and her life. Like I said, I can get choked up at these ceremonies, so I’m expecting to get a little teary eyed seeing my daughter walk across the stage and receive her diploma.

As a parent, I’ve been able to share a few other graduation ceremonies with my daughter. Her preschool held a ceremony when she officially “graduated” to elementary school. Her elementary school held a similar event when she officially transitioned to middle school. The middle school even held a ceremony to recognize her passage to the high school. And, of course, her high school held an official commencement ceremony when she graduated. I know some people balk at these multiple rites of passage. They consider them to be some kind of artificial recognition or something. They wonder why we need to hold preschool and elementary graduation ceremonies. I don’t share that perspective. We shouldn’t hesitate to celebrate achievements, regardless of the age or academic level.

Here’s the real rub, however. Each academic rite of passage is both an ending and a beginning. Sure, the ceremony official celebrates an academic achievement and marks the formal transition from novice to expert within that school or learning community. The rite of passage signifies that accomplishment with all of the pomp and regalia. But more than that, the rite of passage also signifies the person’s entry as a novice into some new community. Think about it. A person graduates from high school, signifying their successful accomplishment of all that’s required of that academic community. Months later, when they arrive on campus, they’re novices again in a new setting. Four years later, those undergraduate students graduate with their academic degrees, but become novices again when they pursue graduate work or enter their first jobs. Experts to novices, and then back again.

Maybe that’s what gets forgotten when we celebrate these rites of passages. We focus so much on it being the ending of one phase of life, that we lose focus on the fact that it’s also the beginning of some other phase. It’s like that quote that’s often attributed to Seneca (and also immortalized by the band Semisonic in their song “Closing Time.”)

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

So, let’s celebrate and honor these rites of passage, not only for the endings they signify but for the beginnings they represent.


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