By Jenny Morris

When Son No. 4 graduated from high school last year, his walk across stage was made possible by a $500 payment I made to the local school system — give or take a twenty here or there.

Earning his diploma took blood, sweat and tears, most of them on my part. He was remarkably sanguine about the whole process. But participating in the graduation ceremony took cold, hard cash.

I paid the $80 fee for the cap and gown in November.

Our other fees — the $50-a-year technology fee for an iPad that sometimes functioned properly and sometimes didn’t, the course fees of $45 to $60 a year depending on the classes he took — were paid along the way.

Of course, as all of his textbooks were accessed online only, concurrent to these fees were the household costs of maintaining a functioning internet service — harder than it sounds depending on the weather. In our previous subdivision, if a neighbor turned on a sprinkler, Comcast went out.

The mandatory khaki pants and white button-down shirt — to be worn under a calf-length gown — were purchased the week of graduation. (Does anyone wear white button downs anymore? I thought I would never find one.)

However, by the time these latest graduation preparations were in progress, Scott and I had heard “Pomp and Circumstance” in a half dozen other venues spread between Children Nos. 1-3. So I knew months before the ceremony that it would be a pay-to-play proposition in even our rather well-to-do school system (as Alabama school systems go).

But until I added up the monetary cost of getting to this day, I didn’t realize how high a hurdle it is to clear for many students in our town.

To walk across the stage and hear the commendation of their community for a job well done costs far more than the $80 participation fee for these students. They have to square any and all accounts from four years at the high school. These fees aren’t optional and they aren’t for electives. And school, lest anyone forget, is compulsory in Alabama until age 17.

Without the funds to pay the fees and the money to continue on to college, children who will qualify for just this one graduation exercise are the least likely to be able to participate in it.   

I remember quizzing the local superintendent about a system that requires middle-class resources to clear the bar for middle-class achievement. “What do students who can’t pay the technology fee do?” I asked her. She dissembled five ways to Sunday while the child I was enrolling in school cringed beside me. I gave up on getting a straight answer to spare him any more embarrassment.

But I asked a similar question to the kind-hearted counselor processing Son No. 4’s graduation paperwork. “What do children who can’t afford the graduation fee do?” She answered that she spends weeks calling local businesses to beg money for students who have earned the credits for graduation, but who can’t pay to participate in what is generally thought to be the culminating achievement of one’s childhood.

This month, invitations to graduation ceremonies will start arriving in my mailbox. And I will sit in the greatest country on earth and watch as people collectively wonder why the poor won’t play by middle-class rules when we make the ante so high they can never join the game.

Pay to play


Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris