“What are you doing in that robe?” Riana, a 10th grader, asks me as I come barreling down the stairs.
“I’m going to Abraham’s graduation,” I reply grinning, “And I can’t be late.”
It’s mid-day in March, graduation day at Boston Arts Academy. Faculty line the assembly hall wall, some in robes like me, others in regular school clothes. Students mill around the lobby. They sense something exciting. “Is my advisory going to the graduation?” a senior music student asks. “Who’s graduating anyway? And why now?” Nick asks. “It’s Abraham.” another musician answers, “My friend. He finished!” How often do high schools graduate one student at a time and in early March? We take this very seriously at BAA. Abraham is not the first student to graduate out of time, so to speak, and he won’t be the last.
The moment that students enter the school they hear me say, “High School is not a timed test.” This confronts a national trend of what is important in school (test results) and only what can be counted (test scores). At BAA what matters is finishing your course work and finishing well. What matters goes beyond a score on a bubble sheet. We hold our students to a clearly articulated set of benchmarks, and we ensure enough support along the way. Some students need more time and more support. Even though we are “dinged” by the state for not graduating students in a four-year time period, we insist that some students need more than four years.
I look over to the gallery where Abraham is being helped into his cap and gown by a faculty member. Two friends from outside of school are with him. They look a bit bewildered by all the fuss. I introduce myself and welcome them and share our pride in their friend. They nod at me politely. I suspect they’ve never heard of a high school graduation in March either. I open the door to the assembly hall and students who have been invited take their seats. I realize that all of our students probably wanted to attend. We opted for students who knew Abraham, including his fellow visual arts students. Josh sits in the front beaming. He has selected the recessional music—a bachata from the Dominican Republic, Abraham’s country of origin.
The music begins. Carmen Torres (co-head) and I begin to process together, just as we do every year in June in our large graduation at Boston’s Symphony Hall. We do the same in August at BAA’s Black Box Theatre for the students who needed an extra summer school session. Abraham needed an entire semester more. He had finished his visual arts requirements and his senior art exhibition in May, but still had holes in his transcript. He had to finish his senior math class and his writing seminar.
The faculty follows us in the processional. Abraham comes last. The assembly hall erupts in applause as he enters the room. After the cheering subsides I welcome the crowd and realize that my emotions have overwhelmed me. Here is this young man who, despite so many odds, is graduating. Here is this amazing faculty, his teachers who never gave up on him. Here are these wonderful young people so proud to be celebrating with Abraham today. I choke on my words and realize I had best get out of the way and let the commencement begin! As I introduce Abraham’s advisor, Mr. Ali who is the graduation speaker, I think: What allowed Abraham to graduate when others have fallen by the wayside? What accounted for his resiliency and courage when others gave up?
Abraham came to BAA as a visual artist with lots of avoidance behavior about doing school and doing school well. As a second-language speaker (Spanish is his first language), his English skills were not well developed. He had been shuffled around in middle school and didn’t have the habit of coming to school on time or doing homework. First year (9th grade) was hard for him. He was overwhelmed in his classes and had a hard time accepting that he didn’t understand the work. He was used to getting by and getting passed on.
He learned quickly at BAA that this is not our way. He was told he needed to go to summer reading after his 9th grade year and that’s when we began to diagnose the depth of his reading and learning issues. He needed a great deal of one-to-one attention and he was lost in the regular school year. He thrived in summer reading (which has a teacher-student ratio as low as 1 to 6), but he got lost in the shuffle again in 10th grade. He wanted to give up. Friends in the visual arts department pushed and prodded him. They helped him wake up on time and even confront where he was stuck. He had the opportunity as a visual artist to explore his creative sides. He grew in his abilities to understand how to use color, paint and composition. He began to acknowledge how to move from one medium to another, and to incorporate his love of music into his art. This emerging sense of how to transfer passions and interests may have helped him buckle down to do math, writing and reading, all of which came much harder to him. Key to his success was an advisor who also wouldn’t let go of him. A tutor and teachers kept teaching him about the importance of time management. Every time he would begin to slip away and practice avoidance a teacher would call him and say, “Get to school. You promised you could do this work. You promised you would try until you finished.”
When it became clear that he wouldn’t graduate in June, or in August, he tried to give up. He decided to get a GED. He stopped coming to school at all. But his teachers wouldn’t let him quit. Ms. Torres in her caring way shamed him into returning and finishing. Once again, they surrounded him and told him that he could do it. And then, once again, they made a plan with him and helped him realize that he could graduate. “There is no shame in needing more time. But there is shame in not getting your diploma,” Ms. Torres told him. “I went out on a limb for you. I advocated for you with your teachers. You will be letting me down, too.” Finally, Abraham took the steps necessary to finish.
We had a visitor at BAA on the day of commencement, Jerry Freedman, from the LA County High School for the Arts. After the ceremony, the tears, and the celebration I asked Jerry what he thought. “I’ve never seen anything like this in any school. I’ve been in education for over 50 years and this was totally new to me,” he said. “The love in the room; the commitment to this one child, the pomp and circumstance for just one child. He must be pretty special that he could touch you all so deeply.”
Abraham is special. He shows us what courage and strength and not giving up look like. His advisor, Abdi Ali, said in his graduation speech: “Abraham also knew how to create relationships. He had strong friendships with his peers and with his teachers. We are giving ourselves the opportunity to say congratulations to you, to thank you for the gifts you leave with us, to honor your resilience, your tenacity, and also to part ways. For this ceremony marks your commencement, your journey outward to give a fuller expression to your purpose on this planet, a fuller expression to all of the lives, things and ideas you will claim for yourself and as part of your family.”
Another teacher, Mr. Gutierrez, read a poem by Abraham It is a poem filled with familiar associations of love, secrecy, yearning and hubris of adolescence. His teachers felt that it also represented the dignity of Abraham’s character.
I include both the Spanish and English versions.
Cuando la noche cae pienso en ella.
Pienso en mi doncella.
Pienso en lo que fuera mejor para ella.
Pienso en la luz, pienso en el amor.
Pienso en lo que fuera mejor para los dos.
Pero pienso en las consecuencias.
Pienso en las barreras.
Aunque no me importaría si la vivo con ella.
Es bonito saber lo que es el amor.
Es bonito saber que estamos juntos tú y yo.
Es bonito saber que te quedarás conmigo.
Y que por muchos años estaremos unidos.
Cuando la noche vuelva a caer.
Mil promesas cumpliré para a tu lado quedarme.
Para ti siempre estaré.En lluvias, tormentas o peligro.
A tu lado yo estaré.
Aunque no me puedas ver yo siempre te protegeré.
Te preguntas….vine a amarte y nada más.
Soy quien te ama, te respeta, mira a tu lado para que te des cuenta.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
When the night falls, I think about her
I think on my fair lady.
I think on what would be better for her
I think on the Light, I think about Love.
I think on what would be best for both.
But I think on the consequences
I think on the barriers
Although, I wouldn‘t care if I live them with her
It is beautiful to know what love is.
It is beautiful to know that together we are you and I
It is beautiful to know that you will stay with me
And that for many years united we will be
When the night has fallen once again
One thousand promises
I will fulfill for me with you to be
For you, I will always be
In the rain, storms, and perils
Beside you I will always be
Even if you cannot see me,
I will always protect you
Who would that be?
You would wonder…I came to love you and nothing else
I am the one who loves you and respect you;
look beside you to find out.
When a student like Abraham does make it through in schools that allow this process, we are reminded of what successful schooling means. We see the power of community, the strength of positive teacher-student relationships, and the importance of never giving up on children. We structured school so that Abraham could keep tasting success, even if it came slowly and in bite-size pieces. Now, Abraham proudly owns his diploma. I know we can call on him to help future students who may falter. Because no one gave up among teachers and friends and Abraham himself, we did not lose this student. We gained an ally.