Thousands of Morris County students graduated this month, filling auditoriums with thousands more of their supportive relatives and friends.  It is a joyous season and time to take pride in one’s achievements.  It is also a celebration of community. 

Educators, parents, family and neighbors come together to exchange memories, hugs and warm wishes.    For all of us should feel accomplished for the contributions we made to educating and advancing society.  As the graduates entered, thousands of us stood in unison, hand held above our hearts to sing the national anthem.  This shared moment of pride gave me pause at a ceremony I recently attended at Mennen Arena.   A smile came across my face as I was truly enjoying the moment. 

The moment was fleeting, as I was jolted out of solemn reflection on what it took to get to the joyful day by the sounding of air horns.  Is that right?  Is that an air horn I heard?  The sound is meant to be jarring, as its intended purpose is to alert us to danger, an emergency in need of tending to such as a stranded boat, a bear crossing a school yard, or a call for evacuation.   Instinctively, attention is captured, following the sound, but where? To the exit door? The whirring helicopter parent, their mini-me?  Whichever you choose, it likely goes away from the focal point of the ceremony – the students as a collective body of aspirants. 

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My ears rang for several hours after the ceremony.  But, it was the aching of a sinking heart that lingered even longer.  For the loss of civility and decency to fellow citizens is unfortunately all too commonplace.  We have a “new normal” when the few, yet loudest, lacking situational awareness, rob happiness and freedom from a socially conscientious majority.      

Startling and unexpected, many of us jumped in our seats.   As the group persisted in using their noisemaking devices (a trumpet sighted), it became a discomfiting tension and annoyance tolerated; rather than outwardly eschewed.  Eyes diverted from the row of human noise makers.  Instead, discontent was passively expressed through whispers to nearby spectators in a search of validation.  One audience member uttered under breath, “animals,” another complained he could not hear the announcement of the next student crossing the stage to receive their diploma.  After the ceremony, a graduate shared that the students started to tire of the air horns themselves, saying “that’s enough and “thank god that’s not my parent.” Clearly, the positivity of the event was waning.                                    

An elderly person expressed that their hearing aid amplified the piercing sound, causing physical pain.  My eyes and grin conveyed sympathy; however, it ended there as I looked away not wanting to incite the air horn brigade.  After all, who wants to disrupt the occasion and cause conflict or, ironically, “start a scene?”  

But I and others, contributed to something worse – the empowerment of a bully – all in the name of “keeping the peace.” 

The elderly and hearing impaired person had to stick up for their own self.  Holding the hurting ear, they turned and said: “please stop.”   A polite request only to be met with indignation.   The air horn-armed woman retorted: “Excuse me?”  When it came time to cheer someone else on, the woman reached over and triggered the horn’s blast up against the audience member’s ear.  The man seated next to “Air Horn Mom,” backing this aggressive act, stated: “why can’t people just be happy?”  Excellent question that the self-proclaimed arbiter of happiness should have posited to himself.  For happiness, not pleasure is what we achieve when we can look beyond ourselves and give to others. 

As the Morristown High School Student Handbook declares in its mission: “Respect for others is fundamental…the rich diversity among the students of the high school and the broader school community, should be valued, embraced and integrated into the learning experience in the high school.” 

Let’s take this lesson and make sure it extends all the way to a senior student’s capstone course, known as “graduation.”  My call to the 50+ high schools and several colleges throughout Morris County is to facilitate events that help to celebrate every child with dignity and equal recognition. 

After all, it was the graduating class, men and women under the age of 20, who exhibited leadership that day by displaying acts of kindness, restraint, and acceptance.  For the younger generation set the example for the so called “grownups” in the arena.  Thank you Class of 2019, for bringing us hope that we can turn this destructive path of incivility around!

Taken from the New York Times Bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That can’t Stop Talking, I leave you with this: “Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts.  We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center.  So we lost our center and have to find it again.” – Anais Nin