Last week, my wife, Lorel, and I were privileged to attend ‘senior signing day’ at the Match High School here in Boston. ‘Senior signing day’, as the school principal, Hannah Larkin, explained early on it the program is a time to appreciate the hard work and success of the school’s seniors, just about all of whom would be the first in their family to attend college.
There were a good two hundred people in the room, most of them students from Match, in grades eight though eleven – almost entirely minority students. The teachers (which includes a cadre of ‘intern / fellows’, fresh out of college, along with other staff) – almost entirely white. And there were a smattering of family members, as well. Some came with young babies, and sat along side Lorel and me for the program. From where we sat, I saw only mothers, grandmothers and aunts – I saw no fathers in attendance, although I bet there were at least a few present, as well.
Seated in the parents section in the first few rows, Lorel and I were able to see the procession of students walking in from the school (located just down the block on the Boston University campus), from eighth through eleventh grades. Lorel sat next to one of the mothers of the graduates and chatted for a while until the program began. The mom next to us explained how pleased she was to be there, and how proud she was of her son.
The session was a ritual of sorts, culminating in each scholar making formal their commitment to a particular school, in a similar manner to the way in which attention is paid gifted high school athletes at the time when they commit - ‘when they sign’ - to attend a particular university. “Who better to honor than you – Match seniors, who have worked so hard and come so far – on the day of your signing?’” was Hannah’s message to packed auditorium.
This theme was echoed in the opening remarks by the principal, and then reinforced by in brief speeches by representatives of the senior and junior classes. A video of the kids in the class, with some indistinguishable hip hop lyrics, and even less distinguishable hand gestures, was followed by a spirited dance presentation from the cadre of tutors who work at the school, as part of a ‘residence’ year. The last of the preliminaries was a brief video from a representative of the office of the First Lady, who congratulated the seniors and closed with the word, ‘…your families are proud of you, I am proud of you, the First Lady is proud of you, and the President is proud of you – congratulations.’
Then came the centerpiece of the program. The seniors – 38 of them - were lined up in chairs on the stage, and in a row just beneath the stage, in alphabetical order. As the first of them was introduced, their name – along with a baby picture – was projected on the screen. Hoots from the hundreds in the auditorium filled the room, and then a hush, as one of the staff of the college admissions office shared a brief introduction, which went something like this, ‘Carlos worked hard in his seven years at MATCH. He overcame a lot of challenges, both in school and out of school. He applied to six colleges and was admitted to three, and for the next four years, Carlos will be bringing his gifts to …’ . That was the cue for Carlos, who took the microphone and raised high above his head, then lifted his head, raising his eyes as high as they could go, and shouted out with every bit of personal pride and accomplishment, ‘Bridgewater State University’.
The room erupted. Shouts, cheers from every corner of the room, ‘Yeah, Carlos! You did it’, read one of the posters that a younger brother or sister had brought with them, and there stood Carlos, beaming into the packed room. The student seated next to Carlos held up a sweatshirt of Bridgewater State, Carlos glanced at it and grinned.
The staff member waited a moment before introducing Josefina, D’Antoine, or Malcolm, or any of the next graduates. Lorel and I both wiped away a tear – we had no idea who Carlos was. And yet, residents of Boston, living in the Untied States, having worked in schools, and knowing some of the staff at MATCH and other schools like MATCH, we had come to know a great, great deal about Carlos and every other young person who would be getting the microphone and shouting their college to a room full of admiring fans.
One of the students, a young woman whose mother, I understand, cleans houses in the area, rose to share her plans, and the room buzzed with a special excitement. But before telling us her college choice, she – and her classmates – started something called (I was told) a ‘cipher’
In this cipher, the girl recited something of a poem, which went something like , “I'm a smart looking girl, straight A's for my grades, I'm a hard working girl
, to which her classmates, nodded in unison, and responded ‘umm-hmm’. The girl went on Gotta choose where to go, what school, what state, man nobody knows
‘umm-hmm’ went her classmates. So on she went, (‘‘I poked around to see what college might be right for me, so I thought I’d apply to Princeton and to M.I.T.’ ) until she got to the punch line (and for the life of me, I can’t remember the rhyming couplet), but the final words unequivocal, ‘…and so, this fall, I will be going to Harvard University.’
Simply put, the crowd went nuts. The first student in the history of the school admitted to Harvard University was a powerful, profound sense of pride. There was a ‘can you believe it?’ buzz all around the room Can you believe it – one of us is going to Harvard? ‘
From our seats in the auditorium, Harvard is exactly 1.3 miles away, but the bridging of the psychic, social and economic distance shook the walls of the room last Friday, and Lorel and I (by the way, neither of our parents had attended any college) were deeply, deeply moved. For the kids in the room, there were sustained hoots, hollers and cheers at that moment – loud ones. For the parents, there were tears.
As I mentioned, we had a few minutes before the program began. After greeting our daughter, and being introduced to some of her colleagues, and watching the kids file in, there wasn’t an awful lot to do – no printed program, no reason to catch up on e-mail. So, Lorel got to talking with the woman sitting next to us, who came in a few minutes after we arrived, nicely dressed in a floral print dress and accompanied by what we thought might be her sister. Turns out she was a mother of one of the graduates, a young man who going to be attending one of the state schools – the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, MA. Lorel and the mom exchanged pleasantries, chatted for a moment about her son, and about our daughter, and then the program began.
I noticed this woman’s polite applause for the preliminary speeches, her restrained laughter at the students’ video, and her approving smile as the first young people announced their plans. When it go around to her son, she turned to us –
‘I’m sorry’, I have just got to stand up. I just have to’, she told Lorel. And as her son, Clifton started his announcement, she moved her purse from her right hand to rest on her left arm, and then she thrust her unencumbered arm outward towards her son and shouted ‘That’s right’ and she pointed ‘that’s right, that’s him – that’s my son. That’s my son!’.
When he finished she turned to us, her eyes a little moist, and her grin almost endless, shaking her head. ‘I just had to stand up, I just had to.’
How the program ended
After the last of the graduates announced their plans, the principal returned to the podium, and explained the last part of the program – indeed, the last ritual of the day. She directed each of the seniors to look under their chair, where a clipboard and pen had been place. On the clipboard, each students found a sheet with their name on it, and the school they would be attending.
‘When I give the instruction, you will sign this sheet’, she said’, and thereby indicate your commitment to attend this college. Are you ready, seniors? Go ahead and sign.’
More hoots, more posters, more whistles, more grins, and the program ended. The younger students filed out, and the seniors hugged each other.
Just six miles away
Match High School is located less than six miles from Newton North High School, where my daughters attended, and it has recently been rebuilt at a cost of 193 million dollars, making it one of the most costly high school projects in the nation. Newton is regularly ranked as one of the bet places to live in America, with its combination of tree lined streets, good schools, and proximity to Boston, Cambridge and all that a vibrant American city can offer.
When I told a friend the night before the program, he – another Newton resident - remarked ‘a bunch of seniors sitting around telling everyone where they’re going college? I can’t imagine anything less appealing.’
Indeed, he was right for what this program might have been like in Newton; where the nuanced difference between, say Tufts and Brown is monumental and Wesleyan and Wellesley might as well be Sparta and Athens.
And any young person who intended to attend Bridgewater State University would likely be ashamed to tell people, his parents scandalized. Finally, if any senior had the temerity to announce their plans to attend Harvard in a room crowed with classmates and classmates parents, I am pretty confident that the room would not explode with pride; but rather with silent pangs of ‘why you and not me’? maybe, But with pride for a classmate and someone else’s child? Doubtful.
What Lorel and I witnessed last week well represented what Match gave these children – gifts that will simply change the course of their lives. The hard work of the students, their families and the staff at Match combined to make the sort of difference that we all know needs to happen – these educators have found the tools. Further, the pride and love shared with these young people by their community was a rare and precious gift. Even we in Newton might have something to learn from them.
‘Everything that is right about America’
That evening, I shared my reflections with another friend, someone who works in the state college system. I told him that the program was, in many ways, a testament to that system that will now find place for these first-in-their-family scholars, and hopefully guide them through to graduation and launch them out of the cycle of poverty.
Tears filled his eyes, too. He unconsciously put his hand to his heart and said, ‘That – that story – is everything that is right in America.’
He’s correct about that, you know.
I.E. is honored to partner with the Match School. There is indeed, something very right about their leadership, their staff, their community and their students. If our work has helped to make any contribution towards their success, we are humbled, and we look forward to their continued success with the next generation of scholars who will sign their intentions in May of 2016, 2017, 2018 and well beyond.