Fifth grade graduations were BIG at our school. Flowers, fancy dresses, the whole family coming - I even saw a family or two who rented limos. And these were families on food stamps. I couldn't understand it for my first few years and then it dawned on me and made me really sad. Fifth grade graduation might be the last graduation for a lot of these kids.
I don't think that was the only reason for celebration - in an area where a lot of the parents didn't have a high school education or came from other countries so their kids could get an education, there was some honest celebrating of the fact that students were graduating from elementary school. But I think even more than that, there was a feeling that this might be their last graduation. You just never knew when kids were going to drop out, get pregnant, or just not make it.
At one of these graduations, I was talking to a mother of one of my students - I had had him in first and third grade but I didn't know his mom well because she was not really around. I think she was working as a prostitute; she was for sure not taking care of her four children as it fell upon the 6-year old to go without food so that the baby could have formula. I had to call CPS several times on that kid. Once his tooth was so infected that his mouth was bleeding freely and I had to send him home because blood was getting everywhere. I told his mom how to find a free dentist and he came back the next day with his mouth bleeding. It went on like that until I told his mom he couldn't come back to school like that - it was a health hazard. By the time this kid graduated, the mom had cleaned herself up (her youngest two kids turned out very differently). The mom was sobbing with pride at his graduation - she had much the same reaction as parents usually have at a high school graduation. Sure enough, the next year the kid had essentially dropped out of school and I saw him hanging around the street reeking like marijuana. I heard last year that he had been shot but not fatally. I don't know why.
This story that my friend found shows that the kids aren't always expected to survive for another graduation even if they stay in school. I don't follow the news in this city very carefully any more but I think I have read about four young teenagers (13-16 years old) killed in a little over a year. In this 2002 story, the sister says:
"I'm worried I'm not going to make until I'm grown up," said Talika, 11, a fifth-grader at Highland Elementary School. "I used to cry at night and have trouble sleeping. . . . I cried for my sister, too. But I'm done. She's in a better place. We're stuck here."It also made me think of the graduation speech I heard in which the graduating student said: "Another way our teachers show that they care about us is they don't let us go to the bathrooms or in the hall when there's shooting." This graduation speech has haunted me for the last couple of years - to think that's something that these kids are actively grateful for. They should be more sheltered than that. That really should be taken for granted. But then, these kids should be able to assume they'll at least graduate from middle school and they can't.
Three years ago: Updates
Four years ago: Funny Kids