Endings and Beginnings
June 7, 2022
For any individual over the age of 18 this event is, perhaps, one of the most seminal and memorable of their life.
The High School Graduation represents so very much. For most it marks the official change from child to adult. It is also a sobering reminder that it is time to either get a job or go on to college. Whichever is the case, it truly represents the end of a phase of life.
The ceremony, known as Commencement, can trace its origins back some 800 years to Europe. At that time, of course, it was a rarefied event and confined to those few scholars who studied at universities AND only in Latin. The awarding of a degree was for the purpose of conferring recognition upon those few who were to be the teachers.
The Infallible Wikipedia tells us:
“Ceremonies for graduating students date from the first universities in Europe in the twelfth century. At that time Latin was the language of scholars. A universitas was a guild of masters (such as MAs) with license to teach. ‘Degree’ and ‘graduate’ come from gradus, meaning ‘step’. The first step was admission to a bachelor’s degree. The second step was the masters step, giving the graduate admission to the universitas and license to teach. Typical dress for graduation is gown and hood, or hats adapted from the daily dress of university staff in the Middle Ages, which was in turn based on the attire worn by medieval clergy.
The tradition of wearing graduation hats in Sweden has been in place since the mid-eighteenth century. The cap is typically a white sailor hat with a black or dark blue band around it, a crown motif, and a black peak at the front. The graduation hat tradition was initially adopted by students at Uppsala University. The headgear then became popular across several other European nations as well.”
In the United States, graduation ceremonies became popular for high schools but, alas, the Infallible Wikipedia tells us nothing as to when that tradition began. In recent years ‘graduations’ have been adopted by Junior High, Middle, and elementary schools. When my children were little, even their ‘pre-schools’ held ‘graduation’ with the tots donning mortar board hats and sharing what they liked best about pre-school.
The months of May and June are prime commencement season. My own high school graduation, from Dwight D. Eisenhower HS, took place on June 6.
What is interesting is how much of that night I remember. My high school had a tradition of the Seniors having an ‘all night’ party following the ceremony. At the time I didn’t recognize the purpose of the party. It was not so the young adults could go crazy… it was to keep them from going crazy and, it was hoped, to keep them safe.
In many ways, my High School graduation encapsulated all of the joys and sorrows of life in a single moment.
It was a typical June day in Yakima. The high was 77 degrees but by graduation time it was in the mid 60’s. There was a steady 16 mph wind blowing with some higher gusts.
My class of 365 graduates assembled just outside the doors at the north end of the gymnasium and awaited the moment we were to walk in. Our parents and families occupied the bleachers, no doubt fanning themselves with the programs, constantly rearranging themselves on the hard wooden benches.
In our line, there was whispering as thoughts and gossip were exchanged. Someone mentioned that a pair of our classmates had recently gotten married due to her getting pregnant. The young woman of the couple had been a good friend in junior high and, although we had drifted apart, the news rattled me.
But it was the information I heard next which, just as the line started to move, literally shook me to my core.
To this day, I cannot recall who told me. Yet the moment is firmly etched in my mind. The older brother of a good friend had been killed in an automobile accident in the early hours of June 6. Although he had been living with his father (their parents were divorced) in Western Washington, he had a good relationship with his siblings and his mother who did live in Yakima. He was only 20 years old.
That sobering moment likely affected the perception of my graduation. Yes, we still cheered and threw our mortar boards in the air; Yes, we had our all night –and alcohol free – party; yes, all our graduates survived the night – even those who skipped the school approved event.
And sometime in the next few days I went to see my friend and her mother, both of them deep in the grief of losing a brother and a son.
That summer I turned 18 and began to prepare for the next phase of my life: college. The month of June, it turned out, was a time of endings but also beginnings, of learning in classes and out of classes, of sorrow but also joy.
All the years of school leading up to graduation had not quite prepared me for the most important lesson I’ve ever learned: embrace each moment and never, ever take for granted a single day.