Why Graduating at the Bottom of the Class is Not Always a Bad Thing

February 13, 2019

This past weekend, I attended my daughter’s graduation.  While that may seem like a rite of passage and a normal and highly anticipated event for most people, it was a little more than that for us. Truth is, it’s because it almost didn’t happen. Don’t get me wrong. My daughter is brilliant, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my daughter.  She barely had to study to make “A”s in elementary and middle school.  She was easily 2nd or 3rd chair in her high school orchestra, without even so much as touching her cello at home.  She currently holds a 1st degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and has several state and national championship titles to go along with it.

The girl is good…but she struggles.  She struggles in ways the naked eye cannot see.

By the time she got to high school, those struggles were getting the best of her.  At first, she wasn’t completing her assignments on time.  Then she just stopped turning them in, altogether.  She apathetically failed classes.  In summer school, she did the bare minimum and passed with very low grades.  We ended up transferring her to an alternative school, designed to help kids in her situation. By her junior year, we knew she wasn’t going to graduate on time, if at all.  We tried to get her to tutors and programs which would support her, but you know the old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I held out hope and encouraged her as much as I could, but it seemed futile.

At the start of her senior year, she was facing gargantuan obstacles which seemed to make it impossible for her to reach the finish line.  By the time she realized the importance of having a high school diploma, the hole was so deep, she couldn’t see the light.

But, that is where the story for her, and many other kids like her, changed.

The fact that she was so far behind, had a low grade point average and had failed several classes, no longer stopped her.  Something had finally clicked.  She kept trying; she kept persevering; she kept fighting.  In the end, it was not her brilliance that saved her; it was her grit.  Her ability to press toward the mark, even though she could no longer see it.  Her stick-to-itiveness and willingness to keep walking forward, even though gravity seemed to be pulling her back.

So there I sat in this small auditorium watching her fellow 30 or so graduates, grateful to even be there.  She did not finish on time, but she’d finished. I listened while they, rightfully, honored the scholars and academic achievers of the class.  The valedictorian and salutatorian were recognized for their achievements and were touted as the best and the brightest.  While I applauded their accomplishments, I admit, I silently grieved for the rest of the kids, who weren’t celebrated in that way.

It takes an inordinate amount of fortitude and determination to graduate in the back of the class.

It is more than commendable to study hard and sacrifice social time and sleep to make it to the top of the class. But there’s also something to be said for the people who persevere through unimaginable and innumerable adversities, to be able to don that cap and gown and walk in the back of that line.

Because those kids never get a standing ovation, a moment on the platform or to wear special stoles, let me say this to you now:  We, your parents and supporters, give you a standing ovation.

I stand crying tears of joy and praise God for your accomplishments, just as I did for my daughter. I cheer as loudly as my lungs allow as you grace the stage and stride across to receive your diploma.  You earned it.  Whether you struggled with drugs, a broken home, abuse, mental health issues, physical disabilities, pregnancy or any number of things, I celebrate you.  I am proud of you!  Brilliance will only get you so far, but grit will take you all the way.

And if you find yourself at the back of a graduation line, hold your head up high and square your shoulders; you are among some of the greatest people in the world. Albert Einstein was once expelled from school.  Thomas Edison was told he was “too stupid to learn anything”. Oprah Winfrey was told she was “unfit for TV”.   J.K Rowling was severely depressed and on welfare while trying to raise a child but still persevered and wrote her novel, Harry Potter, becoming one of the wealthiest women in the world.  It takes grit to be great.  Still not sure? Watch Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk on the importance and impact of grit related to long term success.

To my daughter and those like her, I say this: I am so proud of you!

I wish there was a space on that platform for the “Gritatorian”, because I would nominate you.  Know that this is the beginning of greatness.  The Bible says in Zechariah 4:10 “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” It may be a small beginning, but it was no small feat.  The Lord rejoices in your accomplishments, even if the world fails to recognize it.

Now, you must continue this work.  Your graduation is a testament to your ability to the push through difficult things, but is not the end.  It marks a new season, a new time for you to learn how to push through to the front of the line, to use your brilliance and grit harmoniously to get to the top of the game.  There is a spot up there for you.  I am always cheering you on, always proud! Remember, failure is not an option.  I leave you with one of my favorite quotes (You know I love those):

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson

Shine on baby!  Shine on!


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