The pandemic has brought a new tradition to my district, one I hope continues -- the Graduation Car Parade. It's a weeknight, the last week of school, just days before graduation, and the student parking lot at the high school gets assigned spots for each school in the district -- the graduates-to-be, in their caps and gowns, form a train of cars with families or friends, decorated up, and weave through the parking lot so we can wave and cheer and wish them well.
It is so much fun, and you get to see students you had years ago all grown up looking (and sometimes unrecognizable, so we're grateful when they write their names on their cars or signs). There's something insanely special about having an adult-looking student suddenly light up when they realize who you are, and vice versa.
Our superintendent and various principals walk around emcee'ing the event. This time, it was mostly our superintendent, going up to cars in line and asking about future plans.
At the start, he asked, "Where are you going?" or "Where are you headed?"
A fine question, but it assumes that everyone is actually GOING somewhere, and that somewhere is college. Many cars have flags and signs for the colleges that students are headed off to, but there are students who are not "going" to that traditional next step -- they are going into the armed services, or taking a gap year, or going into the workforce, or a vocational school, or an 18-21 program, or one of our excellent local community colleges. But it always feels like the expectation is a four-year college, which isn't for everyone.
I was thrilled when the question morphed and he began asking, "What's next?"
How easy that shift was! How much more inclusive!
I've read about how in Germany (correct me if I've got this wrong), there is even more esteem placed on apprenticeships than college acceptance, and there are newspaper announcements of apprenticeships. I wish we did this, and it didn't feel "less than" for kids to have a different plan than college, less worthy of WOOOOOOs, more likely to garner a small awkward silence and then "oh, well, great! Good for you!" And it's funny (but not really) that GOING to college does not mean that you will GRADUATE from college. That students who know themselves and choose community college with the option to transfer may ultimately have an equally or even more successful life later down the line, or kids who go into trades could be more immediately financially solvent with way less debt and way more job security. It speaks to how we view success, or the appearance of success.
It makes me think about how often there are assumptions made of "next steps." But, also, how there has been incremental change in the idea of life moving linearly or even in a binary fashion. That it's more accepted to have "alternate" paths, and as we evolve even the idea that these paths are "alternate" is fading.
I love the phrasing of "what's next," because it doesn't immediately plunk people in predetermined boxes. It acknowledges that there are many pathways. That success can be more than one thing.