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Who's to blame when N.C. students find at the last minute they're not graduating? (Updated.)

First, it was as though they didn’t want to let me in.

Then, it looked like they weren’t going to let me out.

High school, I mean.

On the first day of registration at the brand spanking new Richmond Senior High School in Rockingham, as hundreds of students from all over the county stood in line, Mrs. DeMay, a secretary, emerged from a back office, walked up to me and with a skeptical side-eye asked “Are you sure you passed 9th grade?”

All chatter in the crowded hallway stopped, and everyone looked to hear my reply, to see if I’d have to get out of line and make the walk of shame back to 9th grade at the old school.

(For the record I wasn’t sure that I had passed.)

Turned out my junior high records weren’t in with the hundreds of other students whose registration seemed to be flowing smoothly.

Dymon Karger and Elijah Tripp celebrate after New Bern High's graduation - and after Tripp crashed the ceremony.

Three years later, when it was time to bid adieu to high school, I was informed on graduation day that, because of an unpaid fine for a lost library book, I wouldn’t be graduating.

One teacher, as panicked as I at the prospect of me returning for another year, asked – as she reached for her pocketbook – how much was the fine.

Although I wasn't assured of graduating until mere hours before the event, they made sure they got me out of there.

Too bad that didn't happen for about 50 seniors in Craven County.

There’s a scene in The Godfather where the heads of the Five Families convene and Don Vito Corleone, seeking to quell a bloody mob war, asks his law-breaking contemporaries “How did things ever get so far?” That’s the same question Craven County students and their parents asked after discovering four days before the big day that they wouldn't be allowed to march across the stage with the rest of their classmates.

Because the students, in the words of Craven County Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner, “didn’t meet the state’s requirements,” they didn't get to march with their classmates at graduation. Instead, they’ve been offered the opportunity to attend summer school, fulfill those state academic requirements and then participate in what Wagner called “a mini-graduation.” That’s an offer they can't refuse because there are, Wagner said, no other options. “Students have always had to meet the graduation requirements to be able to have the honor of walking across the stage,” she said. When I asked if parents and students were blindsided by the news, she said they “have multiple ways to know how they’re doing in class” throughout the year. She cited attendance, grades, class participation and electronic platforms that provide “real time” progress reports. How, some of you may ask, did 17- and 18-year-old students get to within days of graduation and not know that they might be in for this academic gut-punch? Others may ask “Isn’t that what guidance counselors are for – to keep them apprised of their progress or lack thereof?” Still others will ask “Isn’t that what parents are for?” Yes, yes and yes. Me? I was all ready to blame the parents, but realized that not every parent is Ward and June Cleaver – or even Peg and Al Bundy - waiting at the crib with a glass of cold milk and some cookies, eager to help them navigate the complexities of life and high school graduation. Then, I was ready to fault the high school guidance counselors, because it seems a key part of their job is to, you know, guide and counsel students. I recognized, though, that not all guidance counselors are like Mr. Weatherly, my friendly high school guidance counselor who had me in his office so often that I should have had an endowed chair therein named after me.

The sad look on that face should tell you how happy this kid was to get out of high school.

The blame therefore must fall, I figured, on the students, who must’ve spent their senior year chillin’, listening to hip hop and rock music, and neglecting their schoolwork, right? Then, I met Elijah Tripp. He is one who learned last Monday that he would be sitting out the graduation march with his classmates at the end of the week. Tripp, who said he has often had to fend for himself since his father died, has thus far fended well enough to earn a scholarship to play basketball at Rock Hill Christian Community College. “For four years, we worked hard, went through Covid, did all the things we thought we were supposed to do,” he said, only to learn at the last minute that he won’t get to march. “Yessir. Very disappointed,” he responded when asked, “ but I’ll just do what I’ve got to do.” What he has to do, he said, is finish the course credit online. He should finish it this weekend, he said, but not in time to march with his peers.

Tripp, a preternaturally mature, courteous and respectful 18-year-old, said “I hate for people to think that I’ve been slacking off for four years.” He said he had enough credits to graduate, but that he was missing an English credit he needed. In addition to majoring in Business Administration and becoming an entrepreneur after college, he said, he wants to become a motivational speaker. I’m guessing watching his friends march across the stage to Pomp and Circumstance at the New Bern High School football stadium while he sits in the stands in his cap and gown will provide him enough motivation to share.

Publisher's note: We mentioned how mature Tripp is - and he is - but he is also still a kid: at the graduation, he ran onto the field afterwards in his cap and gown and chest-bumped some of his friends.

He was suspended for 10 days, which meant, he said, he'll have to wait that long before completing his missing course.


Jun 12, 2023

I spent four years as an admissions officer at one of the larger schools in the UNC system, and I can tell you that you would be amazed at just how many admitted freshmen seem to think that, once they get that welcoming letter, high school is over. My anecdotal experience was that the last semester of English was most often the stumbling block. It usually appeared that the student in question failed to read the rest of the letter, that part about successfully completing all required courses. Whoever you want to place the blame upon, I can tell you that talking with one of these folks about what comes next was the most unpleasant part of the job. …


Jun 12, 2023

Typical politics, "It's the students' fault because yada yada yada." There is more than enough blame to go around. But you have to take into account that school counselors and administrators are paid to do what they are supposed to do. Parents as taxpayers are their employers. Students are young and inexperienced and rely on those who are supposed to take care of them.

Replying to

I place the blame on the mature adults who are being paid to do their job! Underpaid and overworked, yes, but still being paid to do a job.





Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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