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Students of today, citizens of tomorrow: Graduation rites of passage

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It’s an annual ritual that occurs in the last week or so of June. Families and friends crowd into a hot auditorium and take their seats in front of a stage gaily decorated in floral blooms, the national and provincial flags, and the time-honoured school colours of red, blue, and old gold.

While the assembled multitude fan themselves with programs distributed at the auditorium door by student ushers, a long procession is forming in the hallway just beyond “the four corners.” Grade 12 students have donned dark blue robes and are being carefully marshalled into formation.

Columnist Ian McKechnie.

Shortly before 7 pm, the skirl of the great Highland bagpipe echoes throughout the corridors; the auditorium doors are swung open; the crowds rise; heads turn; and the parade of graduands gets underway.

At the head of this triumphal procession is the president of the Student Administrative Council with a banner lifted high, like an acolyte or verger leading pilgrims through a cathedral at a great ecclesiastic festival.  The gold-tasselled banner – with the school’s Latin motto inscribed across it – will be placed behind a table on the stage, draped in red, blue, and old gold, and flanked by dignitaries representing the school board; the school’s administrative staff, and others.

Reaching the front of the auditorium, the procession disperses as graduands and dignitaries alike take their seats.  The national anthem is sung, words of invocation are offered, and the graduating students are called forward one by one to receive their Ontario Secondary School Diplomas, as well as any additional awards or bursaries of which they are the recipient.  Proud parents take pictures, for after crossing that stage, their children are no longer simply graduands, but have become graduates.

Following the conferring of diplomas, one of these graduates, having been duly chosen through peer election, is invited to give the much-anticipated valedictory address. Words of nostalgic reflection and inspiration are given; the principal speaks, and the master of ceremonies brings the evening to a close by urging graduates to stay safe in their revelry at the various post-graduation “after-parties,” many of which will last well into the wee small hours of the morning.  The skirl of bagpipes brings the audience to its feet once more, the banner is raised, and the procession retires to the school common area, where fellowship and refreshments await.

Such is a typical commencement ceremony at Lindsay Collegiate and Vocational Institute (LCVI), from where I graduated nine years ago. Every school has its own customs surrounding commencement, though the closing weeks of Grade 12 generally follow the same pattern, whether for Weldon Wildcats or LCVI Spartans. The Spring Formal occurs in mid-May, a time-honoured event with its many traditions (and excesses). School barbecues and grad breakfasts are common throughout June, after which come final examinations. Then there’s graduation night, the post-graduation parties held around bonfires in backyards across the countryside, and a summer of gearing up for one’s post-secondary life.

It’s a phenomenon that has been documented in countless movies, novels, and songs – and with good reason. These are not empty rituals. Like the pouring of water at a baptism, or the exchange of rings at a wedding, they are rites of passage – symbolic actions and events which mark the transition from one chapter to another in a young adult’s journey through life.

It is fitting, therefore, in this “season of graduations,”to look back at how Lindsay high school students observed commencement in generations past.

One of our earliest examples of “closing exercises” at Lindsay Collegiate Institute was documented in 1893  – 125 years ago. “J.R. McNellie, chairman of the board of education, opened the meeting by a very instructive and pleasing address,” we read in the June 30, 1893 issue of The Canadian Post, “upon the conclusion of which Principal Harstone began the presentation of prizes and certificates to the successful candidates in the different branches.”

The Rev’d. Robert Johnston, minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, gave an address in which he “…impressed upon the minds of pupils the great value and good results of diligence and perseverance.”  J.J. Carter, the valedictorian that year, offered his thoughts, after which God Save The Queen was sung, and the Rev’d. C.H. Marsh, rector of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, pronounced the benediction.

Though not as old as the commencement ceremony, another end-of-school tradition that gained popularity in local high schools and elementary schools during the twentieth century was the yearbook. Today, yearbooks are spectacular, full-colour photographic records depicting everything from track-and-field events to spirit days and the routine monotony of class.  Nearly a century ago, a typical yearbook was heavy on text, with poetry, short stories, sporting commentary, and editorial analyses outpacing photography.  The Tatler, which was first published by Lindsay Collegiate Institute in 1917, offers us not only a record of life at LCI eight or nine decades previous, but also a lens through which to understand what was going on in the world at the time.

Consider, for example, the words of Principal William J. MacMillan in his Foreword to the 1932-1933 edition of The Tatler.  Read today, Mr. MacMillan’s observations seem almost prophetic:

“To-day we seem to have reached another milestone in the progress of civilization.  Many long-established institutions are now passing through the most testing period of their existence, and in some cases their survival is threatened.  The very foundations of our Democracy are being shaken.  Extreme nationalism has developed in practically every nation of the world.  International trade has decreased to an alarming extent, and unemployment has reached unprecedented proportions.  The hope of mankind lies in improved conditions in the immediate future. 

The students of to-day will become the citizens of to-morrow.  Since work in factory, shop or office is not available, many of them are spending a few extra years in the classroom.  They are thus preparing themselves to grasp the unsurpassed opportunities, for the trained mind, which will inevitably found when this period of world readjustment has past.  The wise youth is not despairing over present conditions, but is looking with confidence to the future, firmly believing that the clouds of depression will scatter, and the sun of prosperity will shine again.”  

– Mr. W. MacMillan

Good luck to Lindsay’s graduating classes of 2017-2018!

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Ian McKechnie is a graduate of Trent University (B.A. Hons. '13) and a lifelong resident of Lindsay Ontario. He presently works as an assistant manager at the museum here in town, and is secretary of the Kawartha Lakes Heritage Network.

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