Why there’s nothing like high school graduation

Newton South High School students at the school’s 2014 graduation ceremony.
Newton South High School students at the school’s 2014 graduation ceremony.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

They walk across the stage, and the stories of struggles and triumph, ball-field brilliance and academic genius dance in your head. You can’t help it. And don’t want to.

You’ve known these young men and women since they were kids, Little League boys and soccer team girls. You remember the braces on their teeth, their science fair volcanoes, the choral groups, the spelling bees, the small-town tales of high school romance and heartbreak.

“And then when that music starts to play, I get tears in my eyes,’’ said Patricia Fry, the principal at Plymouth South High School. “There’s nothing like a high school graduation. It’s special.”

Yes, it is.

By comparison, the grand ceremonies in Harvard Yard and TD Garden for the great universities of our city seem to be more of a business transaction. Here’s my $200,000. May I have my diploma now, please?


But high school commencement — playing out this weekend throughout Massachusetts on football fields, in auditoriums and gymnasiums, and under springtime skies on town greens — has an emotional payload, a poignancy that is impossible to exaggerate.

There’s the high school valedictorian at Scituate High School, the accomplished young woman with a passion for social justice on her way to Wellesley College.

There’s the tall, strapping senior from Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, so premature at birth that he fit in the palms of his parents’ hands, headed for Storrs, Conn., in September to study pre-med at UConn.

There’s the high school football captain from Boston who easily could have surrendered to a life of gang violence, but said no. He’ll be at college in Worcester this fall.

“Never, ever, ever does this become routine or old hat,’’ said Dana Brown, who for 12 years now has been the principal at Malden High School, home to one of the state’s most diverse student bodies.

Brown will hand out diplomas to more than 400 graduates on Sunday. One kid’s going to Harvard, another to Yale, and seven have won full-boat scholarships to schools like Hamilton and Union and Denison.


And then there are other stories, less homespun and equally real.

“We have upwards of 25 students who are in hotels and shelters and couch-surfing in someone’s home,’’ Brown said. “We have a number of 21-year-olds who are graduating who left Haiti after the earthquake and are just starting to gain momentum.

“One thing we do hear from a lot of our high school graduates is they never quite find what Malden High School meant to them in any other place.’’

Perfectly put. And that is what really will prompt the waterworks among the parents and the graduates this weekend.

In many cases, these kids have been together since kindergarten or first grade. They took swimming lessons together. They wore the same Cub Scout or Brownie uniforms. They suffered the indignities of the same school bus bully.

They’ve been there for one another through the teenage rites of passage: driver’s education, the junior prom, their first kiss, the SATs, military enlistment, and the fat package from the college admissions office with a letter that begins: “Congratulations!’’

It’s the completion of a journey, an affirmation of a bond so strong and so enduring that it’s unlikely to be surpassed — or replicated — in their lifetimes.

“There are always some kids who take the predictable path to great schools,’’ said Fry, this year’s recipient of the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association’s Principal of the Year award. “Then, there are some kids who are completely on their own. They live with other kids’ parents. Their parents have left them or passed away.


“You have a kid who was really a disaster early on, and you never thought they would make it. But then something wonderful clicks.’’

That pretty much describes Stevaughn Dowdye’s remarkable travels through the halls of English High School in Jamaica Plain.

Stevaughn’s mother died unexpectedly when he was 11. As a freshman, he was urged by a cousin to join one of the city’s powerful gangs. He was torn and stressed. He punched windows. He was chronically tardy. He failed one class and struggled in others.

“I was just an angry kid,’’ he told me the other day at the school where he was preparing for this week’s graduation.

But then, turning to longtime English teacher Rene Patten, he said: “She opened a lot of doors for me that I really couldn’t open.’’

Patten is the school’s coordinator for Diplomas Now, a national group working in some of the nation’s toughest schools. Patten saw that Stevaughn received therapy and tutoring, turning him away from failure, toward unimaginable success.

He’ll enroll in the sports medicine program at Becker College in Worcester in September.

“I’m proud of myself,’’ he said. “I’m proud of my whole class.’’

When Stevaughn was asked what had made the difference, how had he navigated the treacherous shoals of his neighborhood — with its temptations and mortal dangers — and found the path toward graduation and college, he did not hesitate. Using his right thumb, he gestured across the table at Patten.


“It was her,’’ he said. “She’s my school mom.’’

He looked at her. Her eyes filled with tears. She swallowed more than once and struggled to find words that would not come. Then she smiled broadly.

“So proud of you,’’ Patten, in a whisper, finally told him.

Across those football fields and auditoriums and town greens, there will be a lot of that going around this weekend. Pomp and circumstance. And Kleenex.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.