In this season of dark and light, of depression and hope, it seemed fitting to attend an odd little graduation ceremony at an alternative high school.
“We’re a little quirky here,” said Kristy Custer, principal at Complete High School Maize, at a ceremony last week for Taylor Tippins.
“I’ll try to explain our strange traditions as we go along.”
Like most alternative high schools, Complete High bills itself as a place for “students who have difficulty in the traditional school environment.”
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This often means students who failed elsewhere – truants, discipline problems, drug addicts, gang members, juvenile delinquents.
Complete High is their last resort, a final stop on an express train to Dropoutville. They apply to Complete, and if accepted, they sign a contract to go to class, behave, do their work and try again.
Taylor started at Complete as a junior, after failing at Maize South High and then at Maize High. She hated school, she says. She didn’t see the point. She goofed off. She didn’t try.
Her mother agrees.
“It was always a battle with Taylor,” Nancy Dienstbach said. “She wanted to come here, but I was a little reluctant. Because I had heard some things about it, you know? Not-so-great things.”
A year and a half later, in a room that serves as Complete High School’s cafeteria and auditorium, Taylor received her high school diploma.
But more than that: She stood face-to-face with high school teachers and classmates who said they believe in her. She smiled as they told her she’s a funny, kind, resilient, tender-hearted person worthy of success.
“Taylor, the thing I love about you is, as much as you hated math deep down inside, you were never mean about it,” said math teacher Michelle Hilliard. “You were never hateful about it.
“You got frustrated, but not with me. You would get frustrated with yourself and you would always say, ‘Why is it so hard for me?’ You felt like, ‘I’m not smart. I’m not good enough.’ But none of that is true.
“If I could give you one thing, I would give you self-confidence,” Hilliard continued. “Just because you’re not good at something right away doesn’t mean you can’t get good at it, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying and persevering and sticking with it.”
Like the Wizard of Oz giving Scarecrow his brain, Hilliard conferred upon Taylor not a magic self-confidence potion, but a copy of her Algebra II final exam. She had scored a 93.
“The smile on your face and the confidence you had in you that day – I will never forget that as long as I live,” Hilliard said. “You got it, and you understood it. Remember that feeling forever, because you can have that in whatever you set your mind to.”
Last week’s graduation ceremony – No. 363 since Complete High was established 16 years ago – included words of advice from teachers and expressions of congratulations and thanks from classmates.
Taylor’s best friend, Alissa Simpson, put a crown on Taylor’s head and a black, Dracula-style cape around her shoulders (one of those inexplicable, bizarre traditions).
Custer, the principal, gave her a copy of Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture,” signed by teachers and staff. Friends, family and former teachers wished her well. She walked to the whiteboard labeled “Number of Graduates Served,” and changed the number from 362 to 363.
Everyone ate cake and drank punch. Then they went outside, and Taylor ran through a gauntlet of people throwing birdseed while Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” played over the loudspeakers:
Rise up this mornin’,
Smile with the risin’ sun …
Don’t worry ’bout a thing,
’Cause every little thing, gonna be all right.
So much of her school career had felt dark and dismal, Taylor said. But this place, this quirky little Island of Misfit Toys, changed her outlook and gave her hope.
“I love school now,” she said. “I never used to say that. Never.”
Next month, Taylor plans to begin classes at Wichita Area Technical College in hopes of becoming a dental hygienist.
She smiles a lot now. She wants to help other people smile, too.