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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.