Do Five Year Olds Really Need Graduation Ceremonies?

Each year, our kids’ elementary school pulls out all the stops for the end-of-the-year celebration. The kids sing songs, the teachers stand up for well-deserved applause, and we all down donuts and apple juice afterward. It’s very nice.

And this year, with our two kids, it took half the day. Mind you, our kids are five and eight. Technically, this means they were graduating from preschool and second grade.

I know, it’s not unusual. As the school year winds down, parents are donning their Sunday best and fanning themselves with paper programs in school gyms across the nation. They’re not just sending off high school seniors, but also fifth graders, kindergartners, even preschoolers. We now commemorate moments I’m pretty sure our parents didn’t even notice. When did this happen?

Last week, as my husband and I were listening to our son’s second-grade class sing “Dry Your Tears Afrika,” I thought back to my own last day of second grade, and came up blank. My classmates and I probably got on the bus and went home. Then we played kickball or Four Square or rode our bikes until the sky grew dark and the doors to our modest houses swung open, our mothers bellowing our names: “Dea—na!” “Ja—nine!” “Li—sa!” “DIN—NER!” (Come to think of it, my mother didn’t even have to bellow my name. I just went home when all the other kids did.) Of this, I’m sure: My elementary school did not host a closing ceremony for any of us.

So when my daughter’s pre-K class stood up to sing “Hello, Goodbye,” I felt my throat ache and tears unexpectedly gathering in the corners of my eyes. It wasn’t just the sweetness of the children’s voices. It was also that Beatles song, which brought me back to the summers of my childhood, when I would lay in the grass for hours, slathered in Coppertone and listening to a record player blasting through an open window, or run wild through the woods behind our house. I know it wasn’t perfect (nearly every couple on our block eventually divorced), but the freedom of those endless, unstructured hours was magical. That no one cared when I finished second grade was fine with me.

And yet, as a parent, I like that we have to get a little dressed up, then sit up straight and listen to music others rehearsed for our enjoyment. We can’t stop the years from washing over us, but we can put on a sundress, comb the kids’ hair, and take a moment to consider all that the year brought.

How much has changed since September. Jessie, age five, who couldn’t work the monkey bars on the first day of school, now swings across them like Jane of the jungle. She’s longer and leaner now, and regularly stamps one foot as she tries to get her point across, then dissolves into full-throated laughter (or tears). And William, at eight, so physically sturdy he’s like a horse galloping off to a faraway place, yet trotting back to us now and then to make sure we’re still here. By some miracle, the top of his head now reaches up to my shoulders. And, our baby, Annie, in an instant, now one year old and walking.

Would I have been so acutely aware of these changes had the school not organized an end-of-the-year event? Were our parents so attuned to time’s passing? I don’t know. But, while I’m not particularly good at rituals myself, I’m happy that our children’s school is.

And I was even happier when William ran up to me after it was all over. Tugging at the top button of his one nice shirt, he said, “Can we go home now so I can play?”