Pass the mic

June 1, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

A few years ago, I came up with an idea for a new book. In it, a young boy comes home from school to see that his parents have moved out of the house. The house is empty. No furniture. No food. Not even a note goodbye. As if he almost expected it, the boy simply carries on with his life. No worries; no bothers. He’s three months away from graduating high school and spends all of his time (mostly inside of his own head) trying to come up with the perfect graduation quote for the yearbook. It would seem that young people put more thought into goodbyes than we do.  

It’s graduation season. My grade twelves are fretting over acceptance letters, rejection letters, conditional offers, student loans, residence applications, prom dresses, shoes, hotels, and fake IDs. It’s a big moment in their lives — I get it; it was an important time for me, too. As their teacher, I want them to enjoy this moment, this time, this goodbye. However, I also want and need them to know that this is as much about beginnings as it is about endings.

They’ve been brilliant all year. We worked with James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III,’ and James Baldwin, “A Raisin in the Sun .” They wrote personal essays, performed their Shakespeare Essays (yup), acted, wrote, shared, laughed and learned. They came to class early and left class late. They like class; I like having them in my class. These kids want something, and this space, this class, gives it to them. We (never just me) worked hard on creating a safe space so that we could have some of the challenging conversations that we wanted and needed to have. I told them that this space wasn’t Twitter or TikTok. This is a space for deep thinking, for deeper listening, for learning, for growth. Nobody gets cancelled because they make a mistake. We offer an ‘opps’ and an ‘ouch’ and try to understand multiple viewpoints. There was growth, and I learned as much from them as they, hopefully, learned from me. But there’s still more learning to be had.

Before the graduation ceremony, we still have a major assignment to complete: the Culminating Task. For my grade 12 University Level students, I get them to write and perform a spoken word poem. It will be the last thing they do in a high school English classroom (if they pass). I’m expecting big things from this group.

Over the years, this spoken word assignment has produced some wonderful moments: there was a young woman who performed her poem via a shadow play. From behind a screen, we listened to her words, watched her shadow as she unwound and freed herself from the expectations that her parents, her history, society have placed upon her; she wanted to be free, her own person —if only for the duration of her poem. There was the young woman, a cancer survivor, who performed her piece from her hospital bed. There were plenty more. Too many to remember. I regret not having recorded them (maybe this year I will). Maybe it’s better they be left to memory and to let the spirit of the performances haunt me for the rest of my career, my life.  

Truthfully, I’m worried about this cohort. I’ve seen what they can do, the magic they produce. They are graduating into a world that seemingly, has no need for magic or poetry. It’s hard to think about metaphors and similes when there are existential issues like climate change and AI technology to contend with. There’s inflation, housing costs. Mental health issues. The world they’re graduating into looks nothing like the world I graduated into. And the people responsible for putting us into this situation are the people who will now be responsible for these graduates.

There is, I believe, a crisis in leadership in our world today. From politicians, executives, and school officials, there are just far too many inept leaders and mediocre managers playing games with people’s lives, too cowardly to accept responsibility, to be accountable, honest, transparent, and void of any new and creative ideas. These are the type of people that take up so much space on the stage at graduation ceremonies —the dignitaries, trustees, and special guests. People that have never visited my classroom, people that haven’t been in a classroom, let alone a school, since they themselves graduated from school. They’ll smile and clap. Some will say a few words, often sounding exactly like the person who spoke before them. They talk about ‘dreams,’ ‘goals,’ and ‘ambitions’ and encourage the graduates to ‘work hard’ and ‘persevere,’ sounding more like a meme than a human being (I think I’ve just convinced myself not to attend this year’s ceremony). At such an important moment in their lives, we give these young people cliches and empty plaudits. Same old script for a wildly different setting.

But I have an idea:

How about we give each graduate a minute on the mic? When they come up to accept their diplomas, we give them a minute to let rip, to let them say what they’d like to say to their classmates, teachers, parents, special guests, and friends. Let them tell us what they think. What we need to do more of. What we need to do less of. How about we make space for them to be heard, to be seen? To be loved. Some will joke; some will be serious. A few may even sound like a poet. It doesn’t matter. It’s their space, their time. At this year’s graduation ceremonies, let’s let graduates have the last word on their last day. There’s plenty that we can learn from them.

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