I recently attended a graduation ceremony. Before I was published I was a high school teacher for years and then taught in the tertiary sector, so I’ve attended dozens of graduations but to be honest, I never get bored. Behind each award, each graduate clutching their certificate, each parent or relative watching proudly, there’s a story. So even though I’m not teaching anymore, when I was invited to this one, I was happy to go.
There’s something about graduation, the celebration of people’s achievements, the sense of one world closing and a bright new world opening up — whether it’s kids finishing up at elementary school, or adults, young and old graduating from university. I love the excitement of awards, the emotion of the speeches, the sense of achievement and the pride in the family and friends watching.
This ceremony, however, wasn’t the usual high school or college graduation; this was a course for disaffected youth — teenagers and young adults who have failed in the school system (or who the school system has failed, depending on your point of view.)
The purpose of the course is to bring these kids back to education and prepare them for further training or work. But it’s more, much more. I’ve worked with kids like this most of my life and I know it’s not easy; some of them have years of truanting and trouble behind them. Many arrive cynical and with a chip on their shoulder. They’ve usually had tough lives and quite often they don’t believe in anything, least of all themselves. And that’s the saddest thing of all.
So the underlying purpose of this kind of course is (I believe) first and foremost to rebuild the kids’ belief in themselves. I won’t go into the kind of curriculum they studied, or the style of teaching their teachers used. I’m just going to talk about one small part of the course, that began almost by accident and has become a cornerstone of the course’s success: random acts of kindness.
(By the way, none of the images used here have any relation to the students I’m talking about. They’re just illustrations.)
I won’t go into the incident that started it all. Suffice it to say that it began with a particularly difficult group. Nothing they did was good enough, they were so hard on themselves, so entrenched in their view of themselves as failures—not that they cared (or showed they cared, for of course they did.)
However a change grew out of one small random act of unexpected kindness from one of the seemingly unlikeliest of the students. When the staff discussed it later, they decided they wanted to reward this kind of behavior publicly as well as privately. So an award system was born for random acts of kindness or RAKs.
Now kids who’ve been naughty most of their lives are what we in Australia call “bush lawyers” — they can and will argue their way around most things and sniff out loopholes the way a dog sniffs out a buried bone, so the staff developed an elaborate set of rules for these awards. The acts of kindness could not be deliberately performed to earn award points. “Sucking up” behavior would earn nothing, acts of kindness could be performed anywhere on anyone — neighbors, cleaning staff, other students. They had to be witnessed and awarded by a staff member freely and unsolicited. Points were really hard to get, but the appreciation that came from staff when a point was earned was warm and unfeigned and sincere.
Frequently the kids were shocked when awarded points for some RAK they hadn’t even realized they’d performed. It shocked (and sometimes embarrassed) them that anyone noticed. It surprised them that anyone cared. It prompted much individual thought and some discussion within the student group. And slowly it changed them.
I was actually there when one was awarded. One lunchtime, a staff member had just had some bad news on the phone. One of the most difficult boys noticed she was on the verge of tears, and without knowing what the problem was, quietly sent the other students away, then got her a cup of tea and fetched another staff member.
The head of the organization (who is tiny, tough and a powerhouse of energy) saw the whole thing from her office. She’d been about to go out to the staff member when she witnessed this random act of kindness from a boy she’d only seen make trouble.
After the problem was sorted, she found the boy, hugged him (to his public embarrassment and secret pleasure) thanked him, and awarded her first ever points for a RAK. He gained great kudos from “finally cracking the boss.”
At the graduation ceremony this boy went up to receive a number of different awards, academic and non-academic. Nobody was there to applaud him, no family, no friends except the ones in his class. But he walked tall.
Yep, I love graduation ceremonies. There’s a story behind every award.
So have you been to any graduations lately? Any stories to share? Or a random act of kindness to tell us about?