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Tradition! Tradition! Sing it like Tevye. We all know that not all traditions are healthy or good or right. Fiddler on the Roof, much as I find it entertaining, strikes me on every viewing as just a bit too much in the spirit of the 1960s in its glee at razing traditions sensible or no. I’m one for giving the benefit of the doubt to traditions unless there is a solid reason to stop them. One tradition I hope goes on and on is Senior Tribute Night, which happens every spring at St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I live. I do not know whence it came and I need not know. I assume it was a footnote written on the second tablet given to Moses.

We attended last week for our second son, who is graduating this spring. It is our second one to attend, though it was a bit different this time. Our oldest son graduated in 2020, the year we canceled life for the young, destroyed countless businesses, transferred massive amounts of wealth to those already wealthy, and pitted citizens against each other with mostly-pointless health regulations because of a virus dangerous to the sick and the old. If it sounds as though I’m still bitter, that’s only because I am.

That, however, is for another essay.

Here, my only point is that because of restrictions on indoor gatherings, we attended Senior Tributes in 2020 in athleisure wear on a sloping lawn at the lakeside house of one of the students. It was probably mistaken judgment this year to both assume things would be the same as that crazed year and also to not read the announcements about it very carefully, for when I arrived for son number two’s event at the school auditorium, I realized that my untucked button down, baseball cap, and sneakers were a bit out of place. People were dressed up as if it were an award show.

It was much better than an award show, however, for the awardees did not get to thank the Academy; gushingly exclaim, “You like me! Right now! You like me!”; lecture on climate change; “daringly” scream profanities at Donald Trump; or even slap a presenter because of a joke. Nor did any awardees have to feel anger at being overlooked. For the Senior Tributes are given to each senior in the graduating class.

I know what you’re thinking. Each senior? Hearing that, one could of course put on one’s best Burgess Meredith Grumpy Old Men face and utter in his craggy tones, “Everybody gets a trophy.” When I first heard of the practice, that’s what I did. But after attending two ceremonies, I’ve decided I’m firmly in the fer and not in the agin’ camp. And not just because the students received a tower of small bundt cakes to share with their parents instead of a trophy.

After a prayer, Academic Dean Michael Adkins gave us the ground rules. Tributes are limited to 120 words. Because it is natural to clap after each one, this is permitted, but the audience should stop their applause when they see the next presenter at the podium. This year, because the class had over ninety students, there would be an intermission in the middle—but it would be strictly limited in time.

One might think that such an event would have its longueurs, but I found it all captivating. A teacher would come out on the stage as the screen in the middle displayed both a baby picture and the senior picture of the honoree. The parents kept their applause within the appointed time. The teachers, with one exception, kept strictly to the time limits. And given that the exception, the gloriously incorrigible son of Lebanon Mr. Jupiter Dahdah, would have disappointed everyone by conformity, this too was in accord with the laws of nature and nature’s God.

The tributes were a delight in part because they were a surprise to the senior and to the parents in attendance. It is a closely guarded secret as to who is rendering tribute to whom. Seniors will use guile, attempted bribery, and even Stasi interrogation tactics to find out. Mr. Hank Kemp, a science teacher, shuddered as he remembered for me the grilling of a teen girl who suspected him: “I couldn’t look at her.”

The thrill of finding out is not merely the discovery of a missing fact. Tributes are not randomly assigned. Teachers and staff submit the names of a number of students for whom they think they would be able to do a good job and would like to try. They are then assigned one or two (occasionally three) of these students. The students are aware that the bearers of tribute really do bear them in their hearts and not merely on their tongues.

Some of the teachers will list virtues and attributes to describe a senior. Some will use stories to convey precisely what marks out a student as worthy of honor and memory. A few will list an accomplishment or award, but this is always in service of demonstrating some character trait or habitual behavior. English teacher Mr. Ted Sexton brought down the house by noting that while some students who have not done their reading will attempt to butter him up by conspicuous acts of manners such as holding the door for him, one young woman did the reading and reflection day in and day out. “Guys,” he admonished the students in the crowd, not all of whom have been imitators of diligent Sophia, “I can get the door!”

A bit of teasing goes on. Mr. Brandon Wanless teased one youthful-looking senior that his baby picture seemed to be the same as his high school pictures. Athletic director Sam Thompson began his tribute to one of the star athletes by noting that one of the greatest moments in St. Agnes history was when the running back was rejected by another local high school. “One man’s trash,” he deadpanned, “is another man’s treasure.” Mr. Jeff Duresky finished a series of adjectives for one student by observing that she was just a bit quirky. Who else, he asked would create her own mysterious holiday and bring him cake every October 10 four years in a row?

Such teasing was taken in the spirit of the affection with which it was given. And affection was certainly present. Sometimes the tributes are very personal. Teacher tears are sometimes seen. One teacher recalled how a senior had been the arms of Jesus and comforted her own daughter at a track meet. A few tributes noted how students had dealt with adversity in various ways—especially those who had suffered from health problems. The recognition of difficulty, the championing of perseverance, and the Scriptural commendation of the seniors to Christ, who dealt with no little adversity in his earthly career, was something that gave one the sense that these students are prayed for and loved by their teachers.

Mr. Dahdah told me later that honoring people is, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, a matter of justice. We owe others honor because it is God’s glory he has put in his images. But it is also an act of charity. Sometimes a teacher does not feel able to pay tribute to a particular student. But for every student there is a teacher or staff member who is able to do so, who is able to see the good, the possibility, and the beauty in a student. Offering that different view is an act of divine charity, for the people—and especially teachers—perish without vision.

There is no doubt that some parents are glad to hear these tributes, too. Headmaster Dr. Kevin Ferdinandt notes that parents should learn from this ceremony that their children have been seen and known at St. Agnes. This is true. It is a joy to hear that others have seen the good one has seen in one’s own child (I wasn’t imagining things). It can be a relief to hear that some of the things that one has seemingly poured into deaf ears have actually been heard and acted on after all—if only outside of the house.

Long live Senior Tribute Night! With Tevye I will kick up my heels and sing, “Tradition!” No upstart progressive son-in-law can convince me otherwise.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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