Graduation and the value of stories

value of stories

Word count: 719 words

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

How my daughter’s graduation ceremony taught me about the value of stories….

I attended two graduation ceremonies last week and a dinner-dance. As the mother of triplets all I can say is thank goodness one of my three kids has been homeschooled for his entire life. One more ceremony might have sent me just over the edge.

It makes me feel like an old fogey to write this but has anyone else noticed how many people are celebrating so hard for accomplishing so little? It’s high school for goodness sake! I know high school is hard for some kids (my son and one of my daughters have learning disabilities) but I don’t think it’s the kind of event that truly deserves limousines and long ball gowns and professional makeup artists.

I mean no disrespect to my kids, all of whom worked hard, but I’d be happier about celebrating their graduation from a post-secondary institute. Yes, I know some kids don’t do post-secondary, but surely we can celebrate their achievement without acting like it’s a splashy wedding.

When I graduated, I had a ceremony in my school gym, followed by a reception in the, wait for it, cafeteria! I also had one school-sponsored dinner-dance, with my parents, at a downtown hotel. There was no prom. No limousines. No professional hairdressers and makeup artists. No “after-grad.”

One of my daughters had a similarly subdued event. She’s registered with an electronic school based in northern B.C. and submits her schoolwork by email. Perhaps because the teachers live in a small town or maybe because the class is scattered across many miles, her grad was low key. They rented a nice hall, had a short ceremony and offered catered snacks following. It was a brief and lovely evening.

In Vancouver, however, where my other daughter attends a public school, the grad “show” started in May with a prom. And because so many schools are competing for theatres and hotels, the events are held at odd days and times. Her prom, for example, was on a Monday night in May. As a result she stayed out too late to attend school the next day. Her grad ceremony, at a fancy theatre, was last Monday, from 4 to 7 pm. Her dinner dance was last Friday at a posh downtown hotel. And more parties are to come.

Anyway, all this frantic partying got me thinking about writing. We cater to students who  want elaborate grad celebrations, but how often do we strive to give our bosses and clients something beyond their expectations?

Trouble is, if we do only what’s expected, we’ll never produce sensational writing. No one will be able to say that we’re doing anything wrong. But we’ll miss the big chance to do something spectacularly right.

And, I think the secret of writing right, is to get personal. The value of stories is that they do so much more than simply convey information. The stories don’t even have to be your own. They can belong to coworkers or clients. But the more personal they are, the better.

At my daughter’s dinner dance, I heard an interesting story from another set of parents. Turns out their son had received a congratulatory card, and photos of himself as a five-year-old, from his kindergarten teacher. She’s retired now but throughout her 45-year career as a teacher she’s apparently made a habit of tracking down all her former students and sending each one of them a card and photos timed to arrive just before their high school graduation.

Cost? Less than $3 per student (although probably more than that before the days of digital photos)

Amount of organization for the teacher? Significant.

Impact on family: Priceless!

What’s a priceless story you can tell in your next piece of writing?


I’m giving away three free apps, for the Wordflex touch dictionary produced in association with Oxford University Press. Anyone who posts a comment on my blog this week — by no later than Friday, June 15, is eligible for a draw to win one of them. (Note: You need an iPad to be able to use the dictionary.) If you’re interested, please describe why in your post. I’ll be reviewing the app on Thursday, June 14 and announcing the winners on Tuesday, June 19.

Posted June 12th, 2012 in Power Writing

  • I am with you, Daphne. The graduation ceremonies for everything from pre-school through…. are completely over the top and silly, in my opinion. Just like birthday parties for 1 year olds. I’m a positive person and not a grump but this stuff is nuts, I think. 🙂 Love the story about the kindergarten teacher!!! What a gem.

    • “Over the top” is a good way to describe it, Meggin. I’m a positive person, too, but I fear this kind of celebration simply teaches kids to be consumers – and exhausts and bankrupts their parents!

  • Linda

    And now there are graduation ceremonies for 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade–Geez.

    This is my favorite part of your post today:

    “And, I think the secret of writing right, is to get personal. Tell stories instead of simply conveying information. The stories can be your own – but they don’t have to be. They can be stories of coworkers or of clients. But the more personal they are, the better.”

    Thank you.

  • maraberman

    Well, think of it this hairstylists and makeup can earn a living hosting events.

    • Yes, the feeling of acceptance is really important. I just wish it could be done in a more modest way.

  • Eve

    I remember my high-school graduation, all these many years ago, as a huge, dramatic, but compressed undertaking. It was the ceremony, the dance and then the after-grad, all in one night. Exhausting, but at least it was over with. The dance was in the school gym, the ceremony in the school auditorium. Simple.
    I’d love an app for the Wordflex dictionary. It looks like it could possibly replace my favorite dictionary of all time, the OED, and since it’s on a screen it wouldn’t be quite the squint-fest that ensues every time I pull out my compact edition with its miniscule type.

    • Thanks for mentioning the dictionary app, Eve. I hope LOTS of people are interested in it. Watch for my review in this blog on Thursday!!

  • Jeff

    I couldn’t agree more. We have kids with balloon bouquets, kids with leis piled as high as their nose and parents who scream and carry on in the audience. I’d like to see more focus on purpose and less on the production.

    By the way, I’m going to my daughter’s high school graduation tonight, my son’s fifth grade and my daughter’s eighth grade graduations on Thursday. Wish me luck!

    • Graduations for EVERY grade now? Yikes! It’s worse than I thought!!

    • This sounds like form over substance. So focused on recognition that it becomes a smoke screen to cover the illusion of “education” when what they’re doing is indoctrination and propagandizing.

      Four years ago, when the present First Lady said for the first time in her life she was proud of her country, I wanted to throw up. I had the good fortune of being surrounded by dedicated teachers. And there still are some today.

      But when children are being conditioned to believe they can’t achieve because of the color of their skin (by teachers and other “leaders” whose skin is the same color), and teachers unions publicly acknowledge their role is to protect teachers’ jobs, not to educate kids, that should be a criminal act.

      Kids need to be *shown* that each of them is significant in their own way and in their own right. But their success is their own responsibility and the adults are there to help them achieve what they desire in life that is worth-while.

      Inner-city crime and the social ills we see on every hand, including kids coming out of college who can’t get a job is an indictment against parents and professors who aren’t acquainted with the real world. Copywriters with English or journalism degrees have no clue how to write copy that sells because the professors hadn’ t done it.

      It’s not a new problem. Claude Hopkins in his autobiography published in 1917 laments that it takes a “college man” twelve years to unlearn the stuff he was taught by professors who had never been outside the confines of the classroom before he could learn to write what works, and by then he’s so far behind he’ll never catch up.

      More competition in education, and elimination of tenure would go a long way toward solving some of these messes. If schools had the ability to fire teachers who aren’t teaching well, it would be morning again in American education.

      It’s a serious problem. Students entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at the college level far too frequently must take remedial courses before they can launch their normal program.

      I graduated from high school at (barely) age 17, and started with sophomore calculus and general physics. At 18, I was a sophomore taking 3rd-year differential equations and engineering statistics. Now I look back and think, no wonder those courses were so hard! 🙂

      But we’re getting our lunch eaten by the Chinese who see the US higher-education system as a gold-mine for their children to gain the skills to compete in a new world.

      And as they gain more access to US schools and understand what we have, the more pressure comes against the communist regime there to open up more freedom. Only time will tell the outcome, but my youngest son enjoyed the first half of his senior year attending a university in Shanghai.

      Modern communications and the Internet are having a dramatic effect on education, and I think the public schools are rapidlyl becoming obsolete unless the teachers change and the teachers unions learn they’re no longer very useful.

      The free flow of information is a huge leveling factor in society.


  • I put the blame on over-indulgent parents who think there must needs be a big reward for a small task completed, or they’re guilt-ridden from their own failure to be taking care of kids instead of padding their income with a 2-paycheck family.

    My wife and I raised nine kids on my modest engineer’s salary (engineers make far less than many folks suppose). She wanted to train to get a job when they were starting into the teen years, but I wouldn’t allow it because she’d never make enough to cover day-care costs, much less anything else.

    Several years she thanked me for standing my groud because she realized how many problems we avoided because she was at home where her role had great importance. Had she not been there, we’d have experienced some much larger problems than we did.

    I grew up in a small community. We graduated 23 seniors from high school. One baby sat her cousins kids. One of them you may have heard of — Ken Salazar, Secretary of Interior (which doesn’t mean I agree with some of his policies).

    No parents were flush with cash. There was graduation, followed by a dance, all in the gymnasium with a live orchestra (early 1960s). The prom was a few weeks earlier. There were no limos, no tuxes. Just nice dresses and the guys wore suits.

    A lot of the fanciness today is, I’m convinced, as much about parents trying to impress others themselves, as it is showing love and respect to their own kids for an expected accomplishment. It turns my stomach to see parents give “their graduate” a brand-new car.

    There’s nothing wrong with a decent used car, provided the kid has to help earn the cost. When Harris and Kliebold shot up Columbine High School in Denver in 1996, news reports said one of them drove a late-model BMW. My reaction was not mild. Here were two sets of parents fixated on their own “success”, while not taking care of their responsibilities to properly teach and guide their kids.

    Kids were missing attention, but they got it. I blame the parents for that incident probably more than the two perps.

    Of our nine, one is married to a very competent attorney and they have eight of their own. Our second daughter has three. She and her husband are both salaried professionals in the computer industry. Our oldest son is one of the best car painters in a 4-county area with a population near 1/3 million. Another daughter is married to an IT software project manager who was born and raised in Taiwan. Our youngest daughter is expecting her third (a girl after 2 boys) and she has a doctor’s degree in audiology. Her husband is a PhD psychologist and school counselor (and very good at it). He comes from a family of 11 kids. She speaks Portuguese. Her younger brother, the youngest of the nine, like his sister, graduated cum laude from college. He speaks English, French, Spanish, and Mandarin (Chinese). He’s close to being credentialed as a certified financial analyst. He’s employed by the state public-employees retirement fund, and has been overseeing an investment portfolio nearing $2B.

    We have never owned a new car. We built our own home. Our kids learned to work. We never were asked for a dime to help them with school expenses. Graduation included parties that were not extravagant, and they were alcohol-free.

    I have little patience with parents who think they need to give their kids everything — who think life’s about “self-esteem” — and every little accomplishment calls for a big production and piles of congratulatory extravagance.

    We told our kids life’s about your ability to get through hard knocks and stay in one piece. Life’s not fair, get over it. It’s not supposed to bed fair. Strength comes from adversity. You’re responsible for yourself and what you make out of the opportunities that come your way. You’re accountable to your Creator for how you live your life, so pay attention to the kinds of decisions you’re making because if you make the right decisions, you’ll have few regrets.

    It’s never right to do what’s wrong. And it’s never wrong to do what’s right. You don’t have the right to do what you want. You’ve been given the power by your Creator to choose between right an wrong. But with that power comes accountability for how you use it.

    There’s a lot more to raising kids, but love, patience, long-suffering as they muddle their way through, learning from their mistakes, all go a long way toward them becoming responsible adults who understand how to have and maintain self-worth (forget the self-esteem nonsense) by knowing who they are, why they are here in this life, and why intact families with a father and mother who love each other and treat their children kindly are an essential foundation for all of society.

    If you don’t have that, society falls apart in short order.

    Indulgent parents don’t help either.

    And that’s my rant for today.


  • Lorrie

    I read your book and am impressed with what you said and how you said it. I work as a psychic and my degrees are in writing. I didn’t attend grad for BA because it didn’t seem cool. (R. Reagan was our speaker.)

    Reading your book is having me rethink how I’m sharing stories. My client and I had a particularly powerful experience during her reading the other day, and she’s encouraged me to write about it in my newsletter.

    How to tell the story, keep it in form so someone can read it online, and still convey what it felt like to have her deceased father speak through me, so to speak? (I realize that must sound crazy to many or any of your readers.)

    I remember your admonition to keep the perfectionism out of the first draft and just write. I’m particularly impressed with your editing skills for the final edition.

    Would be great to have some force come through me and tell the story it wants to tell (especially if it’s better than I could do on my own, and most writers have the experience of a story writing itself.)

    Graduations…I guess we need ceremony, pomp and circumstance applied to something? I don’t, but maybe I’m given that sense of other worldliness without having to don a cap & gown.

    • Lorrie, not sure how I can help but it sounds a little like you’re wanting to edit WHILE you write. Remember: keep those two jobs separate!

  • Cindy

    I agree – graduation/prom business is getting over the top. And yet, it is logical to see the progression culturally, with reality tv and whatnot. Amidst all the blingy hoopla, the kindergarten teacher’s simple gesture of sustained thoughtfulness shines the most.

    And – I look forward to reading your Wordflex review. I am just discovering the iPad’s possibilities. The first 5 months, we were merely getting to know each other — browsing and reading. I finally bought a keyboard and discovered I’m loads more focused and productive with my writing! Especially since it’s not alt-tab-easy to switch out of Pages like it is on my desktop. (However, if someone has discovered that it is indeed alt-tab-easy or some variant thereof — please DON’T tell me!)

    • I love my iPad keyboard, too! Makes all the difference.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Cindy, you are one of the three winners of the Wordflex app. Please email me to receive the code.

  • JeanneJM

    My sister taught third grade for 30 years. Last weekend when I mentioned that one of her former students was renting a house from us, she checked her collection of 3-ring binders for one from 1995 that held a hand-written recipe for ginger balls carefully written in beginner’s cursive with a student picture embedded in it & a class picture on the backside. Such care showed the mark of a teacher who impresses upon her students that they can & do make a difference!

  • Karen

    Kudos to you Daphne for having the guts to say what I’ve thought for years, as a fellow old fogey. I think part of it is definitely Vancouver (and other large cities) where let’s face it: weddings, Bar & Bat Mitzvahs, and other rights of passage are way over the top.

    To an extent, I agree with Clarke about over-indulgent parents but I think it’s also difficult to deny your child what others are doing around them…within reason. However, I think “reason” has gone out the window on this one!

    As proud we should be about them graduating high school, it does seem to lower the bar somewhat.

    • You’re right – it’s hard to deny children what others around them are doing. One thing saved us: When our kids turned 13, we started giving them an annual clothing allowance. They got a (big enough) cheque on their birthday and had to buy all their own clothes, shoes, coats etc. for the entire year.

      It was the best thing we’ve ever done as parents. I felt very happy this year as our daughters had to figure out how to buy their own dresses without our involvement!

  • Melanie

    Great story! It reminded me of our experiences with school

    Just this week my 14 year old son was sorting through his old papers. One of his most prized possessions is a collection of laminated photos his kindergarten teacher made. She took a photo of each child in the class holding something special to that child. She gave each child a little book of photos of each of their classmates at the end of the year.

    This book is even more special to my son because we moved away at the end of that year. He’s been homeschooled ever since.

    He doesn’t understand the big graduation celebration. He had a transit pass photo taken at a local studio recently. While waiting for his appointment, we watched a slide show of grad photos. He thought the gowns were truly hilarious and the tradition truly baffling.

    I also look forward to the review. My son is using the iPad to help him with reading challenges. He’s very interested in apps to help him to improve his reading and writing.

    • Technology can really help kids with learning challenges. Good luck to your son, Melanie!

  • Carol Vanhook

    Loved the stories. Brings back so many memories of raising our kids as well as watching all the seniors take off in the high school I teach! Oh the roads that await before them!

    Speaking of stories. I am preparing to give a presentation tomorrow at a regional area educational agency in Iowa to educators and the community. My presentation deals with eLearning, writing, images, thinking, and sharing! I utilized our state library’s model on telling the library story to develop a template for Telling the Family Story. And so, I hope your readers may enjoy using this, too. It really would be a great family activity for child, teen, or adult. It could be a great family-get together activity on the 4th of July!

    The Telling the Family Story is located in my Public Dropbox:

    Best to all,

  • E J Watts

    The writing advice drawn from your article is right on as usual. But what really struck a chord was how ridiculous high school graduations are these days, a sentiment I wholly share. If you think Vancouver is bad, take a look at the States, e.g. Chicago, where it makes our fesitivities look like the bush leagues. The same goes for ridiculous weddings which cost a fortune and make everyone tense.

    Maybe we can start a movement!

    • I’m all for starting a movement! When my husband and I married, we greeted all our guests at the door. People thought we were crazy and we were just trying to be polite and welcoming!

  • Roger D Paterson MD

    I’m an old fogey, too!
    In the summer of 1947 our graduating class of about 250 pupils celebrated the event in the school gym, too.
    There were a few open houses around the same time of year, but there was never a limo, fancy outing, or favulous ball with ball gowns and tuxes. Those types of celebrations were de riguere but held throughout the year.
    In a word, it was a time of celebration, but not one of outdoing one another.
    Today, it is a different story.
    Even my own third son received special recognition graduating from KINDERGARTEN.
    The next generation in my own experience is that of my step-son’s children. At ages 6, 9, and 11 there is no graduation, as yet.
    But the many school projects, demanding higher and more sophisticated talents (from the parents) seems to be a constest between, not the pupils, but the parents. The competition is fierce. I could hardly imagine the complexity of these “simple” assigments and fail to understand what all the fuss is about. It certainly has little to do with “the three R’s”!

  • Angie

    Your post this week cracked me up as just this morning I read a graduation speech by English teacher David McCullough Jr (the historian’s son) presented at a local Massachusetts graduation in a wealthy town. This might make you laugh — you do need to read through to the end (two pages) as he does make a point and is not simply being nasty to the graduates!

    • Angie, thanks for posting this fantastic link. Hats off to David McCullough Jr!! He delivers the very model of an exhilarating speech. Everyone should read this.

  • Pat Henman

    I enjoyed your newsletter immensely this week. I also just finished a week of high energy, ridiculous over the top events and hair “poofing”. I am surprised the teens are able to go to school a full day after the events of the weekend were over – if they did. My daughter finished in January so she did not have to think about that.
    I wanted to share that our 3 children all had the same grade 6 teacher ,and Ms. Hucal, as she is known to all of us in my town, has sent a letter to each and every student she has had over the last 35 years. She actually gets a friend of the student to write the letter, and she keeps the letters til grad time, and then delivers them to grad cap and gown and distributes them. My daughter lost her letter in all the hooha Friday night – now that is sad.
    Thanks for the read.
    Pat Henman, Nelson, BC

  • Ruth

    Oh I can not agree more. It is wonderful (and essential) to celebrate the successes along the way, but come on, let’s get it in proportion. I see so many young adults wilting once they get out of the structure, somehow with no idea how to think for themselves or achieve a goal. I am a life coach that assists people to integrate their structural side with their spiritual side so they can live a life that truly inspires them
    cheers Ruth

  • What struck a chord with me was the writing advice in your article. Be personal. Tell stories. I just revised a letter for a client that explains the reasons for a merger of two professional practices to clients of one half of it. The letter worked once I changed the point of view to first person and told the story. As far as your contest for the iPad dictionary app, I want it because if you like it, it must be cool.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Eric, but remember that everyone has different tastes! People are often curious to know what I read, for example, but I always rush to remind them that just because *I* like it, doesn’t mean they will!

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Eric, you are one of the three winners of the Wordflex app. Please email me to receive the code.

  • steve

    Daphne, Brave and timely prophetic call.

    Of course you’re right: part of a culture of excess and where I am not even the excuse of a graduation, just mid-winter. And once installed puts pressure on those who can’t afford so they don’t go. have Cinders experiences?

    But you can give guideliness, change the culture. It’s time.


    “At its meaningful best a graduation is the triumph of ritual over the trivial, never show over substance. It is an occasion made special by the special: special clothes, special food, special manners. And a successful graduation is a step out, out into a world in which spirit can triumphs over the harsh circumstances of environment, a world that anticipates and celebrates equality of opportunity but never of achievement.
    What spectator today doesn’t long for a revival, a revival of the kind of dancing and music emphasising grace, exhuberance, and the participation of all. And the revival of rituals which achieved a pior serious-mindedness by presentation of partners to an esteemed adult.
    “Graduations should be celebrations – not some excuse for celebrification or excess. At their best they celebrate a rite of passage, a graduation into an adult world of rights and responsibilities, of compromise and respect.

    – Found in an old chapel in Baltimore in 2012!

    • Any idea when those words were written?

      • steve

        Moi, hier! (never invited to do grad speech but so thought I’d do a Twain!) Interestingly, I’ve been arguing OverHere that we combine our midwinter seniors ‘Ball’ with graduation to give it something emancipatory to dignify it with. Our principal insists on meeting students & partners in office beforehand which has made a big difference to ‘tone’ but here pre and post-Ball parties are a problem.

        • You make a really interesting point, Steve. The PERSONAL TOUCH of the principal makes a difference. (Perhaps not enough, but it sounds significant.) I think personal STORIES can do the same thing.

  • Lisa

    This is such a timely column, Daphne. I agree graduation ceremonies have become too extravagant. Back in the day when I was a young pup , we only celebrated high school and college graduation. My high school graduation wasn’t a lavish, costly event, either.

    I love the story about the retired kindergarten teacher who mails former students a card and photos. That IS priceless!

  • Esther Griffin

    I enjoyed your “prom and graduation” article and I agree!

  • Jean Freeman

    Oh Daphne, once again you are right on the money!!! I’m forwarding your sage and pithy comments to all my friends who care about (a) good writing, (b) sanity, (c) balance, and (d) the world!! Even if they’re not writers, I know they’ll appreciate your wise observations.
    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!

  • Louise Julig

    Do you mean they are combining prom and graduation? Maybe that is a Canadian thing. Here in the States, Prom is a completely separate occasion, not associated with graduation. But I do agree that some of the ceremonies are getting a little out of hand. I never had anything until high school graduation, which was kind of a big deal.

    My daughter’s middle school just had a “promotion ceremony” but I thought it was well done, held on the field at the school with folding chairs. A handful of representative students got to speak about different aspects of life at school, and the 8th graders were “promoted” en masse, without parading one at a time across the stage. The whole thing took about 35 minutes.

    I checked out the Wordflex video, and it looks very cool! I’d love to be entered for the drawing, as I think it’s a novel use of new technology – who knew they could improve the dictionary??

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Prom and graduation are on different nights but held at the same time of the year so parents are left with the impression that grade 12 is one big party. (My homeschooled son calls it “the grade 12 kindergarten year!”) I certainly don’t object to small, tasteful ceremonies — 35 minutes sounds quite reasonable. (My daughter’s ceremony was three hours.) Good luck with the draw for the Wordflex video!

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Louise, you are one of the three winners of the Wordflex app. Please email me to receive the code.

  • James Sayers

    Great story. I have a son who graduated from high school last month, and around here, the senior breakfast (for students and their parents) seems to become a bigger production each year. Graduation itself is conventional, but many parents have parties at their homes in weeks surrounding the ceremony. Other than overestimating how much root beer our guests would drink (we ordered a 16-gal keg but only half of it got consumed) our party went fine.

    Here in our school, a 7th grade English teacher saves a paper from her class and sends it back to each graduating senior as a memoir from his or her educational career. Also the kindergarten teacher sends each student a family art project the student drew in her class and the teacher saved from 12 years ago; many students proudly display these pictures at their graduation parties.

    Finally, my favorite: Mrs. McDonough, a preschool teacher (now retired) had many of our kids in her school years ago. Over the years, every time she saw a former student’s picture in the paper, she would cut out the face, tape it to a postcard, and send it to the kid’s home with the note, “I saw you in the news!” We always laughed because if there were many kids in a picture, she would cut out each little face to send on a separate postcard to each of many students. Like you said, the impact of this is priceless. Many students kept the cards and displayed them at their graduations. In many cases, more meaningful than the diploma – and certainly more personal.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Some teachers are so dedicated! Love your story about Mrs. McDonough, James!