Tribune editorial: High school graduations are supposed to be celebrations

(Courtesy of M. Vida Hafoka) Taavili PO Hafoka graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. He has South Pacific heritage but was banned from wearing leis during his ceremony at the Huntsman Center.

High school graduation ceremonies are supposed to be joyous occasions. They are a moment — sometimes a very long moment — marking a significant milestone in the lives of not only the graduates but of the families that have raised them and have every right to share their happiness.

They are not supposed to be a wake. Not a solemn procession even more dark and dour than most modern funerals. And they most certainly should not be the last opportunity some officious high school deputy administrator has to squash the spirit of their students.

Thus the disappointment expressed by more than a few recent graduates, and their families, over the decisions by some high schools and the managers of some commencement venues that serve mostly to kill the moment.

As explained in an article by The Tribune’s Courtney Tanner, those most affected by various insensitive policies are members of the Salt Lake City area’s Pacific Islander community.

They have, in some cases, been prohibited from wearing the traditional flower leis common to any celebration in many cultures. In at least one reported instance, one Tongan student graduating from Westlake High School was commanded to leave behind his traditional ta’ovala cloth, even though it was totally hidden beneath his traditional American graduation gown.

Asked about that particular event, Westlake Principal Gary Twitchell said the student should not have been required to do that, and offered an apology.

Meanwhile, the Salt Lake City School District’s people in charge of educational equality have been leaning on the people who run the arena at the University of Utah to back off their policy banning leis, a policy apparently instituted to cut down on the mess that has to be cleaned up after each ceremony. Sometimes as many as four in one day.

It is true that saying “no leis” is easier and, perhaps on the surface, more even-handed than saying “no more than three” or “flowers only, no cash, candy, bags of chips.” And it is true that expressions of joy can be carried to extremes, ruining the moment for everyone.

So the people who run our schools and our big event halls have a little work to do.

Whatever they decide, the bottom line should be that they are putting on a celebration. That may be difficult for people who have sat through four or five, or 30 or 40, commencement ceremonies to grasp.

But they should understand that, especially in some minority communities, the person crossing the stage may be the first in their family to graduate from high school. A respectful blending of traditions — the cap and gown with the lei and the ta’ovala, or any other culture’s expression of joy — is exactly what we should be encouraging. The last thing we want is to send the message that to get an education is to abandon the family.

One common complaint is that some families react to the reading of their graduate’s name with a lot of hooping and hollering and cheering. And that unintentionally drowns out the reading of the next name or two.

The answer to that, of course, is to slow down a little. Let the joy resonate a bit.

The students — and their families — have earned it.