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Supporting our communities by helping our younger members succeed

Lessons from a high school graduation

I’m going to be brutally honest and completely transparent about something I’m learning the hard way. Recently, my son graduated from high school. The past months have been filled with anticipation of this momentous occasion, but nothing about this was surprising. As I sat in a crowd of thousands, I was reminded that as a highly educated man, I take a lot of things for granted.

The reality is that from the time my children were born, I’ve never really even considered the possibility that they wouldn’t finish high school. It was always a given. It was merely the next in a series of accomplishments I expected to see fulfilled. Consequently, I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as many others gathered at North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena. Sure, I took some pictures. And I applauded when appropriate. But for our family, this ceremony was simply a formality—something that has to happen in order to move to the next rung on the social ladder.

When graduation isn’t guaranteed

When Jackson started high school as a ninth-grader, there were around 700 in his class. Last night’s commencement was for around 500 graduates. You do the math. Was the ceremony a little rowdier than I’m accustomed to? Yes. Were there expletives shouted here and there? Yes. Did some of the attendees behave as though they’d never been to such an event before? Again, yes. And in the moment it frustrated me greatly.

But now I’m frustrated that I was frustrated. I’m sad that I somehow took a special occasion and made it about me—my values, my story, my preferences. More than that, I’m heartbroken for the nearly 200 students we lost over the course of four years—many in their senior year. Why couldn’t they finish what they started? The easy narrative is to say they just didn’t care. But I don’t believe that, not for a minute.

I believe that what happened to them is the same thing that happens to thousands upon thousands of urban high school students all over America: poverty, unemployment, pregnancy, physical sickness, addiction, and mental illness. And maybe it wasn’t even something that happened to the students themselves. Just one of these issues in any given family can wreak havoc on the whole family system. How many families struggle with more than one of these issues at any given point in time?

More importantly, how many of us really care? Not in a ‘bless their hearts’ way but in a way that encourages them, empowers them, partners with them, and speaks life into them? Those who serve in inner city social services programs and ministries will be quick to answer: “Not enough.”

So while I’m proud of my honors graduate and his many well-earned cords, it’s important to be just as proud of those who barely made the cut—because so many didn’t. And as in Jesus’ story of the woman and her few measly coins, maybe they too were giving all they had. Here’s an inconvenient truth: Our best efforts are not all equal. To believe anything else is to live in a fairytale world.

I take so many things for granted—like the love and support of Jackson’s grandparents who drove hundreds of miles from different states to celebrate him. How I wish every student could have that kind of faithful, generous, and unconditional love from their own parents and extended families.

So to those who were at graduation wearing their matching “her grandma,” “her aunt,” and “her step-mom” shirts — thank you for caring enough to encourage and support your graduate in such a visible way. To those who shouted out their graduate’s name, thank you for letting them know you were in their corner cheering loudly. To those who made special arrangements to take off work for the occasion, thank you for making the effort.

Caring for those who lack support

For those who lack such support, I call on members of the Church and community to step up and be those people. In the words of a famous former First Lady, “It takes a village.” As a responsible, overachieving, self-confident kid, it was easy for me to minimize that statement way back then. But the older I get, the more merit it has. And supporting our communities is not an issue of politics but an issue of humanity.

I believe the adage “to whom much is given, much is required.” What does that mean for me in this situation? Here a just few of many lessons:

Humility: It means accepting responsibility for my own attitude of entitlement and pride. It’s much easier to be cavalier about it and pretend that the world is a bed of roses.

Responsibility: It means standing in the gap and making a difference for at-risk students and families. It means helping them navigate systems and processes that are confusing and resources that are difficult to access. It’s much easier to blame them for the problems in their lives.

Engagement: It means showing up to the next high school graduation in enthusiastic support of those who have no one to cheer for them. It’s much easier to declare that I’m done now that my son has finished school.

Gratitude: It means being grateful—truly grateful—for all those things I take for granted on a daily basis—things like food, shelter, faith, family, friendship, financial resources, opportunities for personal and professional growth.

If we truly want our communities to be better, then we must collectively be better at doing whatever it takes to facilitate the success of our youngest members. And it means using what we’ve been given to serve and benefit them. In a few short years they will be the ones providing leadership, direction, and support. Let’s show them the way by our example.

I’m thankful that while my son received his high school diploma, I learned one of the greatest lessons of my life—a lesson I hope will help me better love my neighbors.

A form of this article originally appeared here.

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