BY Travis Loose
SPRINGFIELD, Ore. – The students have taken their places on the rostrum.
Seventy-six in total, most are twitching and swaying nervously, anxiously awaiting instruction for what to do with themselves.
As a teacher begins strumming her guitar, the students join her by singing together.
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
And I know when I need it
I can count on you like 4, 3, 2
You’ll be there
‘Cause that’s what friends are supposed to do
Something about the Bruno Mars hit being sang by 76 fifth graders just stirs an emotion.
It’s a strange happy-sadness.
And while the parents are wiping their wet eyes as a result of the sweet singing voices of the children who they’ve watched grow over the last 10 or 11 years of their lives, they understand that this is simply the first of many more transitional ceremonies to come.
Dave Hulbert, principal of Springfield’s Riverbend Elementary, acknowledges the challenging transition facing the school’s outgoing fifth grade class.
“I don’t like to call it a graduation—that’s not what it is,” he says.
“It’s a ceremony, but mostly it’s a rite of passage.”
As the 2013-2014 school year draws to a close, students throughout the U.S. will be graduating from a variety of academic institutions.
And while these celebrations are meant to be an acknowledgment of achievements for the graduates, Hulbert says that Riverbend’s fifth grade graduation is more of a “passing on ceremony.”
“The word graduation seems to [suggest] a sense of hard work and accomplishment towards something,” Hulbert says. “In high school, you have to work hard and pass your classes; but here, you’re passed from grade to grade—there’s no holding back.”
That’s not to say he believes the fifth graders shouldn’t be recognized. He just wants the accomplishment to be recognized for what it actually is.
For the educators and parents, in many cases, the celebrations will mark the culmination of years of hard work spent teaching and preparing the students for the next phase in their lives.
For the students, from kindergarten through to college, the feeling of accomplishment that coincides with holding that diploma—the vast array of emotions which overwhelms and envelopes the graduating student’s mind as they accept the paper that marks the closing of one chapter in their life, while simultaneously signifying the beginning of another—is a sensation that is unique to each student.
College graduates will be looking for work; high school graduates will be preparing for college, or also looking for work; middle school graduates—the 8th graders who just spent their past year as the top dogs in their respective schools—will nervously contemplate the unknown horrors of starting all over as freshmen in high school; and kindergarten graduates will excitedly move from finger paints to water colors.
But what about the fifth grade graduates? Isn’t their transition just as valid? Just as important?
Compared to the 12 other Springfield elementary schools, the graduating Riverbend fifth graders will participate in one of the more formal graduation ceremonies.
At the graduation, which was held for one hour in the morning on the last day of school, each student had their name called, they stated their favorite memory from their time at Riverbend, accepted their certification while shaking hands with Hulbert and then banged on a gong once for each year they spent at the school.
“I don’t even know how [the gong] got started,” says Heather Klym, one of three Riverbend fifth grade teachers.
At the ceremony, some students really banged it, while others were clearly more timid in their aggressiveness.
The gong has been part of the Riverbend graduation ceremony tradition for as long as Klym can remember, and she’s been at Riverbend since the school was built 17 years ago.
Traci Vaughan and Rick Haas, the two other fifth grade teachers, have been at Riverbend for seven and 12 years, respectively.
They all agree that the ceremony is important for the kids.
For the ceremony, as an award for one of his students’ hard work, Haas dyed his hair sparkling neon pink.
“It’s a nice way to say goodbye to their elementary school,” Klym says. “Here it’s hard because about half of the fifth graders go to one middle school and the other half go to another school. So, it’s a kind of goodbye to those friends, as well.”
“It’s kind of sad, but it’s a moving on part of life,” she says.
During their opportunity to share their favorite memory, many of the kids mentioned meeting their best friends as the one most worth remembering.
“It’s a transition,” Haas says. “It’s a celebration of their elementary school years and moving on to bigger and better things … obviously, when they graduate high school and college, that’s way more important, but it acts as a transitional period to recognize the work they’ve put in for transitioning into middle school.”
“Some of them have gone here their whole lives,” Vaughan says. “So, it’s a pretty big deal to leave this building, and leave their friends and the teachers and the familiarity—we like to mark that.”
The kids are excited, the teachers say, but they’re also nervous and afraid.
AJ Heigh, 11, graduated from Riverbend on June 13.
The oldest son from a military family, AJ moved around a lot during the most influential years of his education.
“He’s gone to six schools in six years,” AJ’s mother, Jennie Heigh says.
He has had some difficulty with his schooling as a result; but more specifically, he has had difficulty establishing relationships with other children.
Despite the challenges, “This year, he’s kind of blossomed,” Jennie says.
She believes that, through the graduation ceremony, AJ will be offered an opportunity to establish his own sense of accomplishment for having finished something that he started.
AJ hit the gong once.
Interestingly, as many students hit the gong one time, as did those who hit the gong for all six of the years they attended Riverbend.
Sadly, because AJ will go on to attend a Eugene middle school, he’ll be one of the kids who must say goodbye to many of the friends he’s made during the past year.
“At least, if he doesn’t see them again, he’ll have had one last celebration with his friends,” Jennie says. “It’s hopefully going to be the last time he has to make a huge change like that.”
AJ’s father, Steve Heigh, has since resigned from his military occupation and taken an officer position with the Eugene police department, where, interestingly enough, his pay is better.
Jennie works as a developmental specialist for Briggs middle school in Springfield.
For AJ and his classmates, Riverbend’s faculty and staff—as well as his parents—believe that the graduation ceremony will be a significant moment in the children’s lives.
But according to AJ, the only thing symbolic about graduating from the fifth grade is that it means he’ll attend sixth grade next year.
Funnily enough, for all the administrative pomp, the only relevant circumstance for the fifth graders is that they’ve still got another seven plus years of school left to go.
But their time at Riverbend has come to an end. And as they finish their song, the lyrics seem to linger on each of their little faces.
You’ll always have my shoulder when you cry
I’ll never let go, never say goodbye
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
The Sorts of Ceremonies
Of the 12 elementary schools in Springfield, nine celebrate a fifth grade graduation in some fashion and three don’t celebrate the occasion at all.
Of the nine, six have formal ceremonies and three have informal little parties.
And for the three that don’t celebrate, two have field days exclusively for fifth graders, while only one literally doesn’t deviate from any other regular school day schedule.
The following is a breakdown of each school:
- Centennial Elementary (1963) – Centennial has had a fifth grade graduation ceremony for more than 20 years.
- Douglas Gardens Elementary (1963) – Douglas Gardens doesn’t have a ceremony for its fifth graders. The opinion being that middle and high school graduations are more important.
- Guy Lee Elementary (1961) – Guy Lee provides its fifth graders with a full day dedicated solely to them; starting with a special fifth grade breakfast, the whole day is a celebration.
- Maple Elementary (2009) – For the past five years, Maple has given their fifth graders the full-fledged graduation ceremony.
- Mt. Vernon Elementary (1997) – Mt. Vernon offers a promotion/awards ceremony more than a graduation. Awards are given for attendance, citizenship and grades.
- Page Elementary (1953) – Page allows its fifth graders to have a “Last Day Walk” through the halls of the school, to the recognition of the school’s other students.
- Ridgeview Elementary (1980) – Ridgeview gives the fifth graders a field day of play. No ceremony is held.
- Thurston Elementary (2009) – Thurston has an end-of-the-year, all-school assembly. An all-school slideshow is given and awards are handed out. There is no special ceremony exclusively for the fifth grade.
- Two Rivers-Dos Rios Elementary (As a middle school in 1950, became an elementary only two years ago) – Though Two Rivers-Dos Rios doesn’t have a graduation ceremony, they do have a party for the fifth graders; and parents are invited.
- Walterville Elementary (1950) – Perhaps owing to its title as oldest elementary, Walterville likely has the most formal, or at least the most official fifth grade graduation of any school in Springfield. It is described as a “big event.”
- Yolanda Elementary (1963) – Yolanda’s appears to be in-line with what Riverbend does: There’s a celebration and a slideshow. It’s a somewhat-formal event for the students and their families.