In 1970 the president of my college, as was the tradition, concluded our commencement exercises with the statement I paraphrase here: “I now declare the 123rd year of Otterbein College at an end.”
Likewise, we can declare the end of this academic year in Champaign County. Ceremonies all around have celebrated any number of transitions, and graduates of all ages have processed and recessed with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance.
Diplomas, be they the pinnacle of achievement or the first of several, have been awarded. My brother-in-law shared this moment after his daughter’s college graduation: “…her apartment was a disorganized collection of partially unpacked containers waiting for closet space. However, there at the center of her dresser on a decorative pedestal, standing upright and open for display, was her degree. In the middle of all this chaos, she had taken time to handle this particular item with special care.”
Recently a few GHS classmates and I reminisced about our ceremony. Fifty years ago we voted to wear light blue and navy caps and gowns, colors certainly outside the proverbial box of the time. Our entrance into the gymnasium, however, conformed to tradition: it took more than a little rehearsal to walk and pause, walk and pause at the right distance from the person ahead in order to meet an assigned partner at the center aisle.
In the intervening five decades I have attended scores of graduations, including 39 of them at Graham. The atmosphere, once stuffy by modern standards, is now relaxed and often accompanied by exuberant outbursts from guests and graduates alike. School officials are fortunate if uncontrolled euphoria erupts only after the final graduate’s name has been announced – and if caps are the only items tossed.
Venues vary, some with inviolable traditions. The GHS Class of 1971, celebrating their 45th reunion this year, convinced a tough principal to move graduation to the football field. After years of ceremonies dependent upon weather, a second gymnasium with expanded seating and controlled temperatures solved problems while changing a custom. To understand fierce protection of tradition, however, one need only check with the nearest Hillclimber about that walk down the hill.
High school commencements may also serve as one final expression of collective emotion before graduates step into their futures. They applaud war veterans receiving diplomas delayed by military service and cheer classmates who have overcome obstacles to rejoin the group for a most important rite of passage. But there were also solemn remembrances during the spring after 9/11, and sadly empty chairs adorned by a single class flower occasionally honor classmates gone too soon…
And there are speeches. Each year at this time, we watch sound bites from celebrities and politicians addressing college graduates. Some high schools also invite adult speakers to deliver thought-provoking advice to the young people seated before them.
Such was David McCullough’s speech, “You’re Not Special.” The Massachusetts teacher reminded his students on that day in 2012 there were 37,000 other valedictorians and class presidents across the country also graduating. But, “… you will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life … come only with the recognition that you’re not special.”
However, I am proud that many schools, including Graham, rely solely on student speakers. Class officers represent and lead classmates through the program. Class-elected speakers and students with the highest grades, sometimes still referred to as valedictorians and salutatorians, deliver speeches with developed themes: dreams, memories, journeys, goals.
It was my responsibility and privilege for several years to advise Graham’s senior speakers. One young man furthered his theme by juggling at the podium, and a young lady delivered her speech twice when a sudden rainstorm sent everyone dashing from the stadium to the gym. One salutatorian questioned the “honor” bestowed upon her: “My reward for having good grades is to write another paper?”
I particularly remember one student speech, whose words brought tears to my eyes, even during rehearsal. Alyse Schriefer, Class of 2008, chose to emphasize uniqueness and connections as she shared with her classmates thoughts both remarkable and typical of eighteen-year-old Americans from many eras: “We are who we have become because of the ties and connections we all have shared together. What makes us unique as individuals also makes us unique as a group…we have shared the hallways and classrooms and sidelines of Graham High School…look at the classmates around you…maybe you see someone who has been your great friend since kindergarten or maybe it’s a good pal from art class. Whatever the connection, it’s your own personal high school story that makes you the unique person you are, the individual you have become.”
Many Graham alums from the 60’s and 70’s will surely recognize the title of this article as words to live by from math teacher, Howard Pickering. He was a master of the cautionary tale, whose message more often than not was “Commencement is commencement.”
It was, however, many years and lots of life later when I realized what Mr. Pickering actually meant. There are those who consider graduation an ending, and I suppose they have a point if they are only looking back. I would suggest to them – and everyone else – to turn around because commencement is all about beginnings.