I recently received a double envelope from Mississippi; it contained an invitation to the high school commencement of my great-niece Ally. Later I saw two Facebook pictures of the grad-to-be: one of a five-year-old, pigtailed Ally on her very first day of school; the other of a young woman, car keys in hand, on her very last day of compulsory education. I am still trying to do the math that has allowed so much to happen in such a short period of time.
Although I will be with Ally in spirit only on her big day, during my lifetime I have attended more than forty graduations – including a couple of my own. I have been inside gymnasiums and outside in stadiums, sometimes moving from one to the other while dodging raindrops. Last year I watched commencement on the Graham website as students, surrounded by family members only, received diplomas – in the pandemic style of 2020. Regardless of location or year, however, robed and tasseled young people have always been about bidding farewell to a completed stage of their lives, even as onlookers and well-wishers have bade farewell to the youngsters they know and love now heading for the next stage in life.
I attended my first commencement ceremony at Graham in 1961 when my cousin graduated. From the balcony I watched the senior class on the stage and noted that one girl received a college scholarship based on her good grades. That night I decided to make all A’s in high school so that I, too, could eventually win a scholarship.
Five years later, my class stepped-and-paused our way to the stage. Five of us gave speeches about success and achievement, and a few of us received scholarships. When I returned to GHS as a teacher, every graduation carried a vein of the traditional pomp and circumstance that still denotes the significance of this time-honored occasion.
As the availability of scholarships increased, more and more of the commencement program was devoted to academic announcements. To ensure an equitable amount of attention spread across the entirety of the class membership, a separate Honors Night with its school-wide awards for academics and attendance became the new home for a more complete program of college-bound senior announcements. It was particularly gratifying that so many local organizations made scholarship monies available – and sent representatives to make the presentations.
Meanwhile, at commencement itself, scholarship winners continued to be honored by standing in place. The equitable attention aspect was ultimately addressed when the principal instituted the practice of asking students planning to attend 4-year schools to stand, followed by the same request of those planning to attend 2-year schools, those planning to serve in the military, and those planning to enter the workforce. I felt the new tradition gave all class members their due.
Then last Wednesday my Facebook pages lit up with pictures of Falcon Signing Day. A Google search revealed that this tradition actually began in 2017 when administrators decided to follow the pattern of collegiate athletics with their days devoted to high school students committing to one specific college or university by signing official letters-of-intent.
Internet pictures showed the relatively modest first GHS signing day in comparison to this year’s gymnasium filled with 59 signing tables. Mindy Bechtel, a former colleague of mine who serves as GHS guidance counselor, explained the program has continued to develop in the last five years: Edison State had to set up twelve tables this year to accommodate the number of GHS seniors committing to that school.
Signing day is an assembly for all students, grades 9-12, with parents and grandparents also invited to attend. Although COVID considerations curtailed some aspects of this year’s program, usually an inspirational speaker fires up the class just before the signing begins. Students are then called to sit at the tables according to their plans. Colleges from near and far send representatives. Military recruiters are in attendance as are representatives of companies and businesses.
Each senior is recognized for his/her goals and signs a letter of commitment to carry out whatever future plans have been formulated. Even students whose plans are not yet firm are invited to sign a commitment to move forward.
I like this new tradition designed to support students as they begin their future endeavors. The commitments, of course, are non-binding. However, the public recognition and self-recognition of planning for their first steps into adulthood can form a foundation from which these young people can launch into what their lives might become.
By the way, I recently heard that an area school began the 2020-21 year with a senior class assembly at sunrise on the first day of school and plans to celebrate the last day of school with a final senior assembly at sunset. Another lovely idea! To all members of the Class of 2021, wherever you are and wherever you are heading, I wish you the very best. Ally, I hope the University of Memphis helps you prepare for the life you want to live. To the students at the sunset senior assembly,
I wish for you a lifetime of consequential sunrises and sunsets. To the Falcons of Graham, remember your signing day, the day you told yourself and the world about your first few steps into the rest of your life. All of you are walking into your futures
– I applaud and congratulate you!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.