This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Graduations usually follow a formula.

There’s a president/principal/chancellor introduction, a procession of speakers that reads like who’s-who-in-local-education, the valedictorian and, of course, the keynote guest.

Caldwell Career Center Middle College breaks out of that mold.

Only three officials – Caldwell superintendent Steve Stone, CCC&TI president Ken Boham, and middle college principal Brian Suddreth – got much speaking time at the middle college’s graduation on Thursday. And those speeches were as brief as it gets, clocking in at about a minute apiece.

The rest of the middle college’s ceremonies went to the 40-some graduating seniors.

Each student got a brief window of time, in between picking up their diploma and shaking a row of hands, to speak.

Some declined. Graduate Katherine West told the audience, to laughs and applause, that she planned to just “take this thing and get outta here.”

But most took a few minutes to share a quote or a story or a piece of advice.

The students talked about the hard times. Some had battled dyslexia that made them too scared to talk in public; some the loss of their parents’ furniture jobs; others depression and anxiety.

They talked about people they loved – the grandmothers who made hot potato soup on cold nights, or the brothers who died too soon, or the parents who pushed them, sometimes kicking and screaming, to a degree.

They talked about the things they’d learned at the middle college – a nontraditional school that focuses on making sure its students don’t get a cap and gown without gaining a marketable skill. They talked about wiring houses and waking up before the sun for internships.

They talked about the most unconventional senior projects you’ll ever hear about – if you see graduate Annessa Monroe, ask her how she trained a goldfish.

They talked about their memories of high school, and their fears and hopes for what was ahead. They talked about the decision to give up an easy life to enlist as a Marine, or the struggle to become a first-generation high school graduate.

Those who plan graduations face the same challenge year after year: How do you honor students’ accomplishments while still keeping in mind that there are babies squirming and knees tapping and minds drifting out in the audience?

The middle college solves that dilemma by handing almost all of its time over to the students. As a result, you see more than a procession of names and faces, blurring over time, across a stage.

You see a real picture of a real class of kids. You get a glimpse of the bedrooms where they sprawled out and did their homework; the last-minute panic that set in as their final projects came due; the people they loved who nudged them toward the finish line.

It doesn’t take longer than a traditional graduation – guests are in and out in less than two hours.

And the night is about the graduates.

“People always ask how long this will take,” English teacher Grayson Beane said. “Well, it’ll take about an hour and a half. But they’ve worked for 13 years. They deserve a minute and a half.”