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Public Pride

A few years ago I gave the opening prayer at the Schenectady County Community College graduation. This meant I was on the stage throughout the ceremony, which also meant that I saw the faces of every single degree recipient. And each face, no matter its age or skin color, was shining with—I don’t know—with what?

Pride, maybe? Happiness? But whatever the emotion, it had everything to do with knowing this graduation signified a job well done, something achieved—and in some cases, against daunting odds.

Though I have always loved and supported public education—both my undergraduate and master’s degrees are from public universities—it was sitting on the stage that day at the SCCC graduation and seeing those faces that convinced me of its extraordinary value in a society that aims for democracy.

Just a few weeks after the SCCC graduation, my daughter, Madeleine, and I drove to Boston to attend her orientation days at Boston University where she was planning to go that fall. As we drove, we talked about tuition. She had gotten a generous financial aid package, but my salary as a parish pastor wouldn’t allow me to close the difference between what she’d been awarded and what the school would cost. She would graduate—an English major—with a pile of student loans.

We had known this, of course, but as we drove, that knowledge seemed more and more overwhelming to Madeleine. And by the time we got to Newton, the suburb of Boston where we used to live, she was pretty much convinced she didn’t want to go BU.

Let’s talk about it, I said. I got off the Mass Pike and drove to the elementary school in Newtonville where Maddy had been a student. It had a great schoolyard with lots of play equipment and a large stone statue of Humpty Dumpty presiding over a bench. I have a picture of Madeleine, on the day of her fifth-grade graduation, standing on the bench just beneath Humpty-Dumpty.

We sat beneath Humpty and talked.

She didn’t have to go to school in the fall, I told her. She could take a gap year—get a job, maybe take some courses at the University at Albany. She had choices.

She didn’t seem sold on the gap year idea. All her friends were going to college, saying goodbye, leaving the area. She would be out of step, out of sync. She’d be lonely.

But if she wasn’t sold on taking a gap year, she was at least certain she couldn’t go to BU and come out with that level of debt.

Fine, I said. We’ll figure something out. So we skipped the orientation and spent two days on Cape Ann beaches, AWOL.

That fall, Madeleine got a job, took some classes at UAlbany and lived at home. I think a lot of the time she was lonely. Even so, she knew she’d made the right decision. The following fall she enrolled at the University at Buffalo. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would voluntarily to go to a place that gets more snow that we do, but off she went.

And it wasn’t a good experience. She found dorm life restrictive after years of having her own car and a huge amount of independence—I hadn’t monitored her comings and goings during her gap year.

She wanted to be involved in a campus ministry group, but all she could find was an ultra-conservative group of students who thought the Dalai Lama’s impending visit might imperil the spiritual well-being of the students. Madeleine loved the Dalai Lama’s speech. Nobody from her campus ministry group went, not wanting to be corrupted by a non-Christian.

I think the last straw for Madeleine was the blizzard at the end of September. Buffalo had been a mistake. But what did that leave her? She couldn’t come back home. She couldn’t go to UAlbany. She was afraid of what people might think. People won’t care, I told her. It’s your education, your life.

And so, Madeleine left Buffalo in December, matriculated at UAlbany in January and spent the next two-and-a-half years there.

Last Sunday morning, with temperatures ridiculously low and the wind whipping at their academic robes, 2000-odd degree candidates processed down the new stone esplanade in front of the UAlbany academic podium. They were followed by faculty, administrators, guests.

We stood on our chairs, trying to get a glimpse of Maddy. No luck, of course. But an hour later she made her way to us through the thronging crowd and into the arms of her friends, her cousin, her stepfather and, of course, me. She had graduated.

She had graduated with honors—summa cum laude, the recipient of a UAlbany-wide service award and a SUNY system-wide academic award. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

And I remember that talk we had in the Cabot Elementary schoolyard under Humpty Dumpty’s caring gaze. Her public school education started right there. And in choosing a public school education, she both freed herself from the prospect of agonizing debt and opened herself up to a world where price didn’t govern possibility nor wealth determine the value of her education.

—Jo Page

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