Dear Graduates, Graduation is not about you.

Michelle Obama at the Kansas Expocentre

About a year ago, my big brother had a great idea.  He wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision on a national stage.  He wanted to showcase his city, Topeka, as the historic landmark that it is.  As the place where civil rights and social justice issues from slavery and segregation to freedom of speech and gay rights have played out.  He wanted to use this moment to help remind the country of the deep progressive roots in Kansas and the true meaning of Jayhawkers (they were abolitionists).  And he wanted to use this moment in time to spark discussion of the struggles and challenges that lie ahead, in Kansas and beyond.

My brother is a city councilman in Topeka.  I’ve never understood why he stayed there.  We grew up in Western Kansas, which any true Kansan will know is vastly different than the northeasterly cities like Topeka.  I moved to Topeka in high school and hated it.  It’s probably a lot to due with the contentious battles of teenage angst, but Topeka left a sour taste in my mouth.  I got the hell outta there ASAP.  But not Nathan.  He tried Kansas City for a bit, as most young Kansans are want to do, but he returned to Topeka.  I spent years trying to lure him to the East Coast, where I lived, but to no avail.  Anyway, over the past year I’ve come to understand how deeply he loves his city and how proud he is of its history and place in the country.  So, he worked hard to find a way to share that with the world.  And then it happened.

He convinced some folks to make a proposal to the White House to join in on the 60th celebration.  He helped form a small group of Topekans who wanted to make this celebration great and save the Sumner school, which was the all-white school Linda Brown’s father fought for her to attend.  (It’s in shambles and is one of the country’s most endangered historic landmarks).  We waited and waited.  We worked on all kinds of surrounding events and speakers and concerts and parties to celebrate the 60th.  We worked with a marketing firm to design a logo.  We waited.  We really thought we had a chance.  After all, the first African-American president was in office.  AND his family is from Kansas.  We worked and worked and waited.  Word came in April, the White House was sending SOMEONE.  But they wouldn’t say who.  Finally, it was confirmed, Michelle Obama had said YES.  She said yes to USD 501 – the same Topeka school district that was in the Brown v Board case.  (Mind you, Topeka was specifically selected as the lead in this class action case because the high schools were already integrated and there was a lot of support for desegregation.  So hush up your ‘but Kansas is bass akwards’ remarks and listen to my story.)  You might think that a Kansas school district is full of lily-white farm kids.  But you don’t know 501.  It’s a city district.  It’s majority minority.  It’s diverse and urban and wonderfully eclectic and dubiously underfunded.  Also, Topeka High is a gorgeous gothic building.  It’s epic.  And the best Mexican place is right across the street (Pepe and Chela’s).  Oh, Topeka has a huge Hispanic population.  And an awesome array of grandmother’s tamale recipe kitchens.

So, anyway, we’re all excited.  But then the most bizarre shit starts happening.  People start complaining.  They write into the paper, they call the school board, they start a petition on change.org AGAINST Michelle’s visit.  Wait, what?  Is this for real? Why? Why, why, why? Well, they say it’s because they don’t want a joint graduation (USD 501 has 5 high schools, 3 mainstream and 2 others. Topeka High, T-West and Highland Park are very distinct schools and rivals). They say it’s because there will be a limit on tickets (rumors of 4 per graduate run rampant, that’s later confirmed at 6). They say that Mrs. Obama is a distraction, taking away from the real focus, which should be the graduates. If you scroll through the comments section on the Topeka Capital-Journal (which is the biggest waste of time ever. Really, stick with Candy Crush if you insist on wasting time), you’ll see some racist and just plain stupid undertones (“I hope her speech isn’t as long as her butt is wide”). The whole thing is just unbelievable. Still, I’m trying to grapple with it and understand the motives from the students and parents’ points of view.

And here is what I have overwhelmingly concluded. Graduation is NOT about the graduates. Really, it’s just not. It can’t be. It’s a rite of passage. It is a rite that exists whether or not you or your child is a part of it. It is bigger than any individual or even the whole group of graduates. The standards for graduating, the ceremony process, that all exists separate from any individual. It’s communal. It’s public property. It is a moment, held in the public sphere, to commemorate the passing of a group of people into a new phase of life and to a new status in the community. And the communal, public nature of this rite means that it does not belong to you. It belongs to all of us. So, happily celebrate the triumphs of your graduates at parties and BBQs across the land. But leave the public ceremony to the public. Leave the public ceremony to those who have a broader perspective of the class of 2014. A class that would not be nearly so diverse and rainbow beautiful if it weren’t for the decision made 60 years ago in this very city. And understand the honor it is for you (the graduates) and your family to be a part of this moment in history.

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