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'This Is A Silly Hat': On First Day, High School Seniors Discuss Pursuit Of A Diploma

Kyle Stokes
"Why all of these meanings for this silly little hat?" asked Rainier Beach High School teacher Colin Pierce of his English class on the first day of school, referring to a mortarboard he'd projected onto the screen in the front of the room.

Rainier Beach High School teacher Colin Pierce projected an image of a mortarboard — the flat, black graduation cap — onto the screen in front of his English class.

This week, many high school seniors across western Washington are beginning their final year of pursuit of this "silly little hat," as Pierce called it. He asked his class full of upperclassmen to describe what the mortarboard symbolized to them. Senior Danny Segi was the first to raise his hand.

"The first thing that comes to my head is 'success,'" Segi said.

"Adulthood," another student added. "College." "Goals." "Improvement." "Work hard, play hard."

People can look up to you and your family no longer has to be like, 'Oh, nobody graduated high school or college.'

If history is any indication, nearly 61,000 Washington high school seniors will earn the right to wear these silly little hats come this spring. But another 19,000 or so — nearly one in four — will not graduate on time.

'A Lot Of Pressure'

"Why all of these meanings for this silly little hat?" Pierce asked.

To some students in his class, the image of the graduation cap is a loaded symbol.

"I have a problem with this image in some sense," said senior Hussein Abshir, looking at the photo of the graduation cap on the screen. "I feel this image is too valued sometimes, because people say, 'Go to college, go to college. If you don't go to college, you won't be successful.' This puts a lot of pressure on a lot of people who do not go to college or who have other plans."

It's an image of conformity, another student added. He said it represented how students must progress through the educational system with students their own age, even though some younger students might be ready for greater challenges — or older students might not be ready for the next step.

'The First In Your Family To Graduate High School'

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Rainier Beach High School senior Danny Segi.

But the weight of the image can inspire students to do great things, said Segi, who spent part of his summer getting a traditional Samoan tattoo on his legs and torso.

“You could be the first one in your family to graduate high school or the first one to graduate college, and be the first one to start the success line," Segi said. "It can be a chain reaction where people can look up to you and your family no longer has to be like, 'Oh, nobody graduated high school or college.'”

Lawmakers and educators have taken special interest in the value of the "silly little hats," with many current education debates focused on how well schools prepare students for college or careers after high school.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said recently he worries more about students who don't finish high school, no matter where the state's graduation rate stands.

"We need more resources for those kids [who don't graduate] if we're going to get them over the bar," Dorn said.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.