The Tassel’s Not a Hassle*

I teach high school, but my children are in elementary school.
It amazes me how elementary school teachers ever find time to teach academic
skills.  They carry the burden of
socializing kids for school.  My
kids had to learn to line up, sit with legs crossed, not touch each other
constantly, restrain from potty talk, carry a folder back and forth from home
to school…and on and on.  I am
blown away by the skill, good nature and pedagogical knowledge of a skilled
elementary teacher that go WAY beyond math facts and scientific method.

It is because of years of elementary-school socialization
practice that my juniors are so compliant and relatively well-behaved as we
head down to the auditorium third period the third week of school for the
annual grade-level meeting. 

As students are settling, upbeat music plays in the background
and our principal greets everyone and begins recognizing various groups on
campus by having them stand and cheer: 
volleyball players, football players, cross country runners, National
Honor Society members, etc. The other administrators introduce themselves as
well, and then a presentation begins by someone whom few of us will ever see
again: a representative from Jostens. 

Many of us left our faculty meeting confused earlier in the
week.  The man on stage talked at
that meeting about the C2G program being implemented at our school (Commitment
to Graduate). All I could determine was that it was made up of positive
recognition for student achievement (a good thing) and propaganda designed to
help students identify with their graduating class.  We previewed the slideshow that would be shared with
students, and all of us were asked to sign a huge banner along with “Class
of_____” indicating our high school class. 

On the day of the class meeting, the lights are lowered and the
Jostens rep shares his experience on the first day of school and other personal
details, and then explains to students why graduation is important, using the
slideshow we previewed.  At the
bottom corner of each slide is the Jostens logo. One of the slides is titled
“Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in vibrant word art, and shows the average
lifetime earnings of someone who earns a high school diploma versus a
dropout.  I am sitting next to a
colleague, and we turn and give each other a look and he says: “Where’s my
million dollars?”  I respond,
“Mortgage, taxes, groceries, gas….” We both agree it isn’t true that the
students are likely to become true millionaires simply by graduating high
school on time– but that is the message they are given. 

The slide I find most troubling is the one that reads, simply,
in huge letters, “The Tassel’s Worth the Hassle!” 

Really? I imagine my honors freshman classes who will see this
presentation later today.  Three weeks
into high school, and they will be herded into the auditorium to be told that
school is a hassle, and that the payoff will be a tassel. To paraphrase the
overall argument: “School is a series of meaningless hoops to jump through, and
at the end you will receive a token of your compliance, and you can then trade
that token in exchange for a million dollars.”  These bright-eyed honors students have recently written me
benchmark essays about their reading experiences.  Many of them wrote five page narratives about books that
have been important to them.  Books
that represented relationships in their lives, books that got them through hard
times.  I don’t know much about
these kids, yet, but I know that i
Tasself I don’t screw things up too badly, we can
be important to each other, and that school can be important for them. 

If I woke up each day and got ready for work mentally planning
all the ways I could meaninglessly inconvenience my students, I would not have
made it through 17 years of this, unless I were more of a sadist than I am. 

Shouldn’t teachers, counselors, families and peers be telling
students that their education is important?  That their achievements are meaningful?  Do we really need cheerleaders from an
outside corporation coming in to use their sophisticated marketing campaigns
to convince students that finishing high school is worth it?  What does it say when the cheerleading
of our school community is not enough?

Or, if we do need the propaganda, if there is a way that it
could help us to create a school culture based on academic achievement and
positive recognition, does it have to be based in lies and logical fallacies
and messages that undermine the work we do each day?  Isn’t there enough truth that could have been used to make
the same arguments?

If public schools really do want to partner with the business
community to help kids succeed, there are so many opportunities for true
partnerships.  However, Jostens
sells diplomas, class rings, caps and gowns, tassels, letterman jackets and
graduation announcements. I believe they have an exclusive relationship with
our school for some of these items. All of those things come emblazoned with a
graduation year.  Is it any
surprise that Jostens would be motivated for students to develop a pride and
identification with their high school and their class year?  The profit motive is just too direct
for my taste. 

In fourth period, after the junior class meeting, I preview
some of the messages my freshmen will be seeing during the presentation 5th
period. We define a hassle (“something inconvenient,” “something
annoying”).  I ask them how many of
them feel that school was just a series of meaningless hassles.  Nobody raises a hand. I ask them what a
millionaire is.

The following week at open house, I was a little too open with
my opinion on the issue with a parent. 
She said she was thrilled that Jostens was doing C2G with our school,
because it came with generous discounts on many of the senior year expenses.  I held my ground, but did learn
something from her perspective.  Senior year is expensive.

Still, I think there is a fine line between using marketing
strategies to promote education and allowing for-profit companies access to our
students in ways that directly affect their sales.

This experience and others has also left me asking the
question:  Am I “The Man”?  Or is my job to teach future citizens
to question “The Man”?  Sitting
with 800 juniors at the Jostens presentation, I felt so dirtily like “The Man”
I was compelled to equip my next class to question the messages they would be
hearing. But was that professional behavior?  Is writing about this experience “professional”? It’s a
question I would like to explore further.

*This was the slogan on the sign I taped on the outside of my classroom door after the assembly.  


Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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