I HAVE A FRIEND who is the mother of a beautiful young son. Recently, when I asked how he was doing, she responded proudly: "He'll be attending graduation on Sunday". Huh? Run that by me again. No, he wasn't one of the graduands. He would be performing - a tribute in song to those who would be moving on from basic school. The "yute" is two years old.
Wednesday morning, en route to the office, I became aware of several youngsters, quite formally dressed, walking along the sidewalks in the proximity of some schools. One girl - I put her age at 11 or 12 - was struggling to keep her floor-length gown from tripping her. Her mother strode ahead of her, as if clearing the way.
A little way back up the road my attention had been drawn also to the unusual number of vehicles clogging the road at a time when peak hour traffic had long passed. What was going on? There were little gentlemen formally dressed in black trousers, white dress shirts and black bow ties. The ladies, of an age which I used to be, once upon a time, were decked out in ankle-length white dresses and those socks with lace trim frothing like foam on a turbulent sea.
Some of "the ladies" sported elaborate coiffures, fattened by extensions and chemical straightening. What was going on? Graduation, that's what. Never mind all the criticism about it being an unnecessary expense. Jamaican parents - (mothers especially), want their little darlings to have an experience which they did not have in their time.
Many voices decry the graduation fixation, but no matter how much it is ridiculed (graduating from basic school? Are you crazy?) and condemned (by ministers of education, clergy and crusading columnists), parents seem to want the ritual more than ever. Never mind the appeals for budget constraints in these hard times. Expenditure on "gradderation" continues to soar. A stretch limo to take "the kids" to the ball in the Corporate Area will pick up, drop off and take home for $18,500. I guess when you divide that by 10, the number which the vehicle accommodates, it won't break the bank. In today's economy, $1,850 per head is really no big thing, so long as the Card can accommodate it.
One item for which penny-pinching is not allowed is the ball gown. Get the budget for a starting point of $6,000. Add the shoes (those platform clunkers don't come cheap, and it doesn't matter if you think they're grotesque). Throw in some jewellery, a hairdo, a mani-pedi and other sundries. Mom and dad might have to pay a visit to the credit union or negotiate with the bank manager for some tolerance in the debit column, but why not? Who wants their daughter to feel left out...and son too, never mind that rental of the tux runs anywhere from $7,000 to $8,000.
SOME CONTINUE TO ASK, what happened to the good old days when a girl put on her white "church dress" and went to school to collect her certificate? Don't you get it? Those days are long gone. As to the standard black pants, white shirt and black bow-tie waiter look, get real. If you don't know whatta gwaan, check the TeenAge Observer each Tuesday and then try to understand why you're experiencing "the generation gap". Actually, it is more like a deep gully, with the bridge washed out. So what if a 16-year-old looks like an adult twice her age? And who cares about possible injuries from the latest three-storey shoes which have her tripping and falling like when she played dress-up, wearing mommy's high heels? New time, grandma, new time.
Returning to the issue of the economic strain of "gradderation" I decided to do a sampling of some of the requirements for basic-school graduands, ages two to four.
BOYS: Black trousers - $1,650, long-sleeve white shirt - $1,095, little black bow tie $140 - $160. One very savvy mother did the shop-around and got a package of shoes, pants, shirt, bow-tie and socks for $4,000. A bargain, but don't count on it every day.
GIRLS: The little white dress begins at over $5,000 and keeps climbing. Add shoes, socks and the rest. My savvy friend borrowed last year's white dress from another mom whose little darling was now a graduate. It fit this year's graduand perfectly, at no cost.
HARD TIMES are encouraging bargains. It you're so minded, good luck to you. What is not negotiable is the graduation package which is strictly controlled by the school. At prep school level, it is rounded off at $12,000. A certificate and photos can set you back $7,600. Ticket for graduation $4,500. Then what about the corsage? A few flowers with a dash of foliage can begin in the four hundreds and move on to the sevens. One small rose with a snip of ribbon and a leaf or two is a bargain at $100. What happens when parents live in the twilight zone of minimum wage? That's another matter.
I can empathise with parents wanting to see their children's brief moment in the spotlight, but is it right for schools to make it mandatory that students must find the money to do so? What does it do to a child when he or she cannot participate in the big event, not because of lack of achievement but because parents cannot afford the dress-up and the trimmings?
No parent wants to see their child humiliated, and that is why despite all the criticism, graduation has gained the hold that it now has on us. For some parents, it means serious sacrifice. I'll always remember a woman who ran to speak to me after a graduation ceremony which I'd addressed. When she identified her son, I recognised him as the valedictorian who had skilfully delivered a well-crafted address. His mother's pride was fully justified, so was the sacrifice she had made.
She related how, with less than an hour to go before the start of the ceremony, she had not acquired the regulation dress shirt which her boy was required to wear. By some miracle, she got the money and with the clock ticking against her, she was able to rush to a store, get the shirt and got her son appropriately dressed in time to march into the auditorium for the ceremony.
Then she said: "I'm going home now to rinse out the shirt and have it ready for his brother to wear tomorrow". It turned out that she had another son, student of another school, who was down to be the valedictorian at his graduation ceremony the next day. Not everybody has that mother's determination.
WHERE'S THE REIGN OF PEACE? After all the efforts to bring about change for the better in August Town, the guns barked again last weekend. It is not for lack of trying to change the culture of violence into respect for life. How long, O Lord, how long?