Thomas, our middle son, did his thesis defense yesterday for his high school diploma. The thesis is the same for all candidates from Diablo Valley School: I have prepared myself to be an effective adult in the larger community. It’s a little different from what you see in colleges, as the ‘committee’ consists of all the students, staff and parents (the automatic members of the “Assembly”) and at-large community members voted in by the Assembly. Guests and the candidate’s immediate family members are not permitted to ask questions; anyone else can ask about anything. Diplomas are awarded based upon the approval of 2/3 of the Assembly, determined by secret ballot.
The candidate writes a paper, usually about 3 to 10 pages long, which is emailed to the Assembly members. Sometimes, the papers are read aloud at school for the benefit of the little kids.
What happens is pretty interesting: often, I think in reaction to how tense things can get, the kids will ask silly questions – but these are often quite revealing of how the candidate can think on his feet, and how he relate to the other students. Over the years, a series of such silly questions have become so standard that the candidates sometimes try to outdo each other with witty answers:
Q: What Disney princess would you be? All-time best answer from a few years ago: Shrek.
Q: You’re on a hill; there’s a tiger up the hill from you, and a tiger down the hill from you – what do you do? All-time best answer I’m giving to my son from yesterday: Since I wouldn’t go walking in tiger-infested country unprepared, I’d pull out my double barrel (he names a specific make and model) shotgun and take out the tiger uphill. Then I’d turn to the tiger downhill, and say: In all the excitement, I don’t remember if I shot one barrel or both. So you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?
Q: If you had three wishes, with the usual caveats, what would you wish for? Again, gotta give it Thomas: according to an old story, a magic talking fish offered three wishes. The man thought and though, and asked for a strawberry milkshake. The fish thought that was aiming pretty low, wish -wise, and said so. The man considered his second wish while drinking his milkshake, then asked for another milkshake. This outraged the fish, who pointed out what a fool the man was being, how stupid it was to waste two wishes on milkshakes. So the man wished for a talking fish sandwich.
The other questions tend to be more serious. Sometimes, the kids ask very pointed questions, such as how a candidate was supposed to act like an adult now when he couldn’t even clean up after himself at school – a question none of the adults would know to ask. Kids can be brutally honest in a way their parents wouldn’t dream of being.
Once, over the last 15 years, a candidate just froze up – the poor kid couldn’t answer any questions. A couple times, we’ve had kids take rather bilious stands against common sense. In such cases, the Assembly seems to vote based on having known these kids for years, rather than on how well they defended the thesis. Sometimes, kids don’t get diplomas. Often, achievement in academic subjects doesn’t come up at all.
I could hardly be more pleased with my son’s performance yesterday. He chose to downplay the usual ‘what are you going to do now?’ issues in favor of the long-term goal: he wants to be a dad, and sees that as much more important to being a successful adult than what one does for a living. So he wrote and spoke on love as an act and not just a feeling, and how that applied to children. In the defense, he referred to St. Louis de Montfort and St. Therese of Lisieux.
This is not a Catholic crowd. His immediate family are likely the only people in the room who have heard of these writers. Yet his answers were so well thought out and clear, and not at all defiant, that maybe somebody heard something they wouldn’t otherwise have heard.
Thomas’s short term plans: work as a fencing instructor at the fencing academy down the street where he’s been a student for years; take some classes at the local JC, and apply to Thomas Aquinas College for the 2015 school year.