More pomp in the circumstance

Guest CommentaryJune 10, 2014 

Beautiful robes with colorful hoods. Caps and gowns in school colors. Elgar played with deliberate tempo. Stately, measured steps. Dignity personified. Tradition at its best. Graduation.

Deep in my heart, I feel that graduations should reflect all of the above. Conversely, my enjoyment of this rite of passage is extinct. The roots of my conflicted emotions go back to my own high school graduation on June, 9, 1944, in the Visalia Union High School Bowl. Miss Zaelke had rehearsed us for days with the precision of a drill sergeant. No one would dare defy her stern demeanor and rigid ways. She stressed that graduation was a dignified ceremony, one not to be taken lightly — an honor we had worked toward for four years. We should treat it with respect.

Some of the graduating seniors had obtained leaves to attend their graduation ceremony and participate in their uniforms instead of the traditional caps and gowns, a concession granted by the formidable Miss Zaelke. We were so very proud of our classmates and so happy that they could be with us for graduation.

Seniors marched in with solemn pride, and, with eager anticipation, waited for the reading of the names: Ruth Marie Abercrombie, Richard Eugene Lehmann, Betty Christine Lawrence ... but wait, what was that name? Was that a titter heard among the graduates? Sh-h... Miss Zaelke will hear you. It soon became apparent that the right names were being read at the wrong times. At first, when a girls name was read for a girl, only the girl whose name was wrong was aware it was wrong. However, as wrong names continued to be read, when boy's names were read for girl's names, the problem permeated the graduating class and the audience in the bleachers.

The whole ceremony collapsed in confusion. Finally the names began to be read quickly with no stately pronunciation.

When the pieces were all put together, it was discovered that the names were read in reverse order, a graduation coordinators worst nightmare. Miss Zaelke had been in charge of graduations forever and had never made a mistake. She did no more graduations and retired from teaching soon after. What an ignominious end to years of faithful service.

For 23 years, I had forgotten this debacle of my graduation. Then I was assigned the duty of coordinating eighth grade graduations at my junior high school. For 19 years, I conducted graduations and instilled Miss Zealke's ideals and standards into these immature eighth graders. My graduates were to march in just so, stand with the backs of their knees touching their chair so that it was not necessary to turn their heads to find where to sit, stand and sit in unison, eyes forward at all times, backs touching the chair backs at all times, no gum chewing. Miss Zaelke would have been proud.

The graduations were held outside for most of the years. I always told my graduates that their behavior was to be perfect — whatever happened, they were to behave with pride and dignity. And for 19 years, they did. Regardless of extenuating circumstances such as a crop duster flying overhead during the ceremony, the wind blowing down the decorations a few hours before the graduation, little brothers and sisters playing tag on the adjacent lawn, the automatic lawn sprinklers being accidentally left on so that parents and friends were thoroughly sprinkled — but through it all, the graduates upheld Miss Zaelke's standards.

After 19 years of graduation trauma, I retired early — just before the eighth grade graduates broke ranks and acted like their big brothers and sisters by throwing balloons, shooting water pistols, not marching out but running wild, and other common graduation antics of today's generation. I quit while I was ahead. The very next year Visalia Unified did away with eighth grade graduations. I did attend my grandchildren's high school graduations in 1999, 2001, and 2011 at Yosemite High. Some of the behaviors would have appalled Miss Zaelke; I was barely able to tolerate most of it. The content of the student speeches was good and well presented. The music was modern and upbeat. The way in which the faculty interacted with the graduates by forming a line and shaking their hands was a nice touch.

Nobody worried about matching a name to a diploma but the right names were read at the ceremony. Some dignity was lost along the way but honor, pride, and joy was evident. However, Miss Zaelke and I really are temperamentally unsuited for the relaxed graduation standards of today. We like more pomp in the circumstance.

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