A Graduation in Maine

Hi. Barb here.

barbgraduationI graduated from a small private school with about 100 other sweaty teenagers. The tradition at my school was boys graduated in suits, while girls wore white dresses. But in my class in 1971, there was a major feminist uprising about this blatant display of gender roles. There were also strong objections to the expense involved, because while it was a private school, plenty of parents were making major sacrifices for their kids to be there. It was assumed the boys would wear the suits again–but the white dresses?

So we, the class of ’71, graduated in caps and gowns, both boys and girls. By the next year, the brouhaha was over, and the boys graduated in suits and the girls in white dresses, and have from that day to this, according to the very specific dress requirements posted here for the class of 2016.

I was reminded of this when I attended my niece’s graduation from Boothbay Harbor High School last Friday. The graduation itself was lovely. The ceremony focused rightly on the students. All three speakers were students, so there were no politicians or other eminence grises bloviating. Even the superintendent kept her remarks short and to the point. With 49 kids, there was time for every name to be called, and for all the kids to receive their due as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. They wore traditional caps and gowns, a lovely shade of blue.

genevievegraduation2016(4)Then, at 7:30 pm, we reported back to the high school gym for the “grand march.” First the graduates’ parents entered the gym, as couples, dressed up and looking proud. Then the graduates entered, two-by-two, a boy and a girl. The boys were dressed in white dinner jackets and the girls in long white dresses. Each girl carried two red-and-white bouquets.

They proceeded to move around the gym in configurations that felt like a cross between high school band formations and a Virginia reel. It was stately and beautiful, and aside from an unfortunate choice of a John Philip Sousa number that somehow reminded every spectator in my area of the marching band scene in Animal House, sending giggles down the row, it was lovely.

genevievegraduation2016(3)When all the marching was done, the group turned to each of the four walls of the gym for photos, and then the kids presented each of their moms with a bouquet. The girls danced with their dads and the boys danced with their moms, and it was over.

And I felt conflicted. On the one hand, it was so old-fashioned and traditional, a link to the past. But on the other, it was clear when the bouquet-presenting and dancing occurred that some kids were coping with having two complete sets of parents present, while others had barely been able to scrape up one set. Still, I imagined the grown-ups working together selflessly to acknowledge a milestone day for their children, and the kids getting to share a special moment with an uncle or grandparent or fondly-remembered babysitter, if a parent wasn’t a part of their lives.

I was even more uncomfortable that the one gender-nonconforming kid I’d spotted at graduation wasn’t present. Had that kid truly not wanted to participate, or were the expectations for dress and gender role just too off-putting? And those white dresses brought back waves of ambivalence. Hadn’t I fought this fight 45 years ago?

We were told several times that Boothbay is the last high school in Maine to do a grand march at graduation. A little Googling tells me that the Vinylhaven School also does one, though the girls appear to be be nicely dressed, in a color of their choosing.

I walked away impressed by the grandeur and the tradition, but disturbed by the embedded assumptions about kids and families.

Readers: What do you think? Grand March–lovely tradition or relic of a bygone era best forgotten?

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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16 Responses to A Graduation in Maine

  1. David Plimpton says:

    Thanks, Barb, for the thought-provoking post and the important question to ponder.

    I would say both yes and no to each choice. The Grand March is important as a tradition and ritual, which we don’t have enough of anymore. But it should be tailored to the recognition of individual personal choices or archetypes. Your feeling uncomfortable helps explain why the Grand March should not be either continued as is or completely deep-sixed.

    This relates, at least in part, to the important right brain phenomena of the unconscious, ritual, myth, the divine, archetypes, symbolism, and emotion. In this polarized, fragmented world, the gap between left brain and right brain widens, threatening and damaging healthy mental balance, integration and thought-processes. We all have a dark or shadow side and it resides in our unconscious, which is more powerful than many of us realize, The unconscious may become largely unrecognized by our conscious side. But the dark side still lurks, and if we don’t integrate it into our conscious in a constructive way (which I think much crime fiction writing seeks to do), it may come out in destructive ways. Witness the projection of evil by many of our so-called leaders and candidates on persons of different sexual orientation, religions, race, ethnic origin, family circumstances, and so forth. Or the insistence that rituals continue rigidly as they always have without recognition of our different individual makeups.

    Jungian thinkers believe an individual must find a ritual that appeals to that person’s own archetype or right brain makeup. This may mean a ritual devised by our culture, traditions or by someone else. But it also may require each individual to experiment to find the right elements of the ritual in the right order and proportion which work for the individual.

    So maybe the Grand March should be continued in a way which is inclusive and allows each graduate to express their individuality and circumstances with the symbols which are important to them, whether dress, marching as boy and girl, alone, same sex, mother and son or father and daughter.

    But that would take a lot of courage on the part of the School Board and administration.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      To be clear, I don’t know that the alumni association, which puts on the grand march, is restrictive or inflexible. I was only reporting what I observed.

  2. Karen says:

    Great post!! Reminds me of my junior prom in 1972–we had to get permission for the girls to wear pants. No fancy gowns for us!! Of course, the following class rebelled and all the girls wore dresses to their prom the next year.

    I am unfamiliar with the “Grand March” way over here in NH but your description is so apt that I feel as though I’ve been transported back to the early 60’s. It would be interesting to know if the students support this tradition or if it’s the administration that is unwilling to yield to the realities of the world of 2016. Inclusion and individuality, where art thou?

    • Barb Ross says:

      That is so funny. You went to your prom in pants and I graduated in a cap and gown. What a funny time the early seventies were.

      My impression was that the students who participated in the grand march supported it and were proud of their moment in the spotlight. I was more concerned about the kids who weren’t there.

  3. John Clark says:

    Having been the head librarian in BBH for several years, I know there are pockets of poverty extremely close to decadent wealth in the area. I am sure some kids struggle with the expense, not to mention the parent issue. On the other hand, we’re seeing so many traditions evaporate in this cyber-crazy era, so I can appreciate the value of this event. Guess I’m ambivalent on this.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Me, too, John. It was a lovely tradition–and full of pit falls. One of the reasons my class in ’71 rejected the dresses was because the competition around them could be crazy. I didn’t hear any of that at Boothbay, even from my niece, whose gown was, of necessity, “vintage.”

  4. Lea Wait says:

    As the (single adoptive) parent of four daughters, I wince at organized activities for young people that emphasize parents of particular sexes. Father/daughter events come immediately to mind. Lovely for those who have fathers. Events to be skipped by those who don’t. Or who have fathers who (like mine) didn’t want to participate. Today families take many shapes. I know teenagers who have one parent (sometimes an adoptive or foster parent) — who have two couples as parents – who have two parents of the same sex – and one who has one mom and three dads. It’s reminiscent of the “family tree” exercises and the “test your blood type” home work that my daughters survived, sometimes with difficulty, years ago. As adults, we can come to terms with foster families, adoptive families, divorced families, children born with the help of sperm banks — etc. But for young people who want – so very much- to not stand out. To not have to explain themselves. To be like their friends. Any organized, required, activity that emphasizes their differences should be looked at with 21st century eyes. Tradition is lovely. But it can also ignore today’s realities. Thanks for posting, Barb!

    • Barb Ross says:

      Exactly. Tradition is lovely, but it can’t ignore today’s realities. One wonders about yesterdays realities as well–the dad lost at sea, the mom lost to childbirth, the dad who was the town drunk. I’m sure those kids had plenty to cope with, too.

  5. Very interesting — I’ve never even heard of a Grand March. In Iowa we tossed robes over our clothes (I wore a light blue dress that was very short) and all 600+ walked quickly across the outside stage at the stadium.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Boothbay makes a very big deal if its 49 graduates. I skipped the parts about the awards evening and class day graduation morning, when the seniors, in their robes, go through the halls of the school saying good-bye to the younger kids.

      For some kids in Boothbay, this will be their last graduation. Most others will go off the peninsula and many will go out of state for college. It’s an important event the whole town celebrates.

  6. This is such a thoughtful, powerful post and the comments are just as good. Thank you for starting this conversation, Barb and thank you for chiming in, everyone else.

    As so many already have said, tradition has value, but rigid tradition will always exclude some (actually, as you say, probably always has excluded some.) My focus, like yours, Barb, is on the non-conformists — the graduate with functionally absent parents or a non-traditional family (that term covers such enormous ground, of course), the gay kids who would rather walk in with a classmate of their own sex, the transgender students who are forced to choose between wearing a dress or a dinner jacket.

    At the same time, I appreciate the value of rituals, the way they link the generations, especially in a place like the Boothbay peninsula. The challenge, I think, is for students, parents, supporters and school officials to continually ask themselves if there are ways to make events like this as inclusive and comfortable for everyone. I think it is possible to do so without sacrificing or watering down the underlying tradition, but it takes conscious conversation and a lack of defensiveness/righteousness on all sides.

    It would be fascinating to see what would happen if each year, graduating seniors were asked what changes they would make to personalize the Grand March, to make it reflect their reality, with the assurance all reasonable suggestions would be incorporated. This would get away from the keep it/scrap it dichotomy that tends to disadvantage those seeking change. It would be cool if change was a given — each class would figure out how to approach the school’s traditions in a manner that suited them. Like caps and gowns for the class of ’71, and a return to dresses for the class of ’72, but with even more flexibility.

    BTW, I clinked on that link to your prep school to check out the dress code. Wow! What the heck are dress socks? Would they bar a student from graduation if they wore stripes or polka dots?

    • Barb Ross says:

      I agree with you completely about not creating the dichotomy. At another Maine high school down the coast, the boys have always graduated in blue robes, the girls in white. It was decided this year to go all blue. This led to some hand-wringing about loss of tradition, and the aesthetics of a field of blue. It also led to some scapegoating of the gender nonconforming kids, “It’s their fault we have to give up this tradition.”

      These problems always seem very simple to me. Let the kids pick their robe color, or assign the As through Ms white, and the Ns through Zs blue. Of course, this would mean some boys would have to wear the “girl’s color”–heaven forbid, like every girl in the world, even by high school, hasn’t had to wear something designed for men, or been referred to by a male collective noun.

      Like our current, ludicrous, national “debate” over bathrooms, (really?), it seems a little rationality, sensitivity and dialogue would go a long way.

      As for dress socks, I always assume those sorts of rules are made because one class with a good sense of humor, at one moment in time, wore crazy socks, and thus the rule has existed every since.

  7. June Lemen says:

    I found this to be thought provoking.
    I graduated from high school in 1976 (the Bicentennial) and our class was close to 300 kids. Everyone wore a robe over whatever they wanted, but you had to wear shoes. We all wore blue — one of the school colors — even though there was a slight suggestion that we do red, white and blue for the Bicentennial. That was it.
    I attended an all-women’s college, where we all marched into the Dimple (a depression in the middle of class) in our robes, with red carnations.
    As a parent, I hate gender separation at school events. When I was on the PTO in our elementary school, we had ‘Family Dances’ where every kind of family was welcome. Some of the parents wanted “Father/Daughter Dances” or “Mother/Son Dances” — I opposed them. There were a lot of one parent families; there were a lot of no parents except for grandparent families; there were a lot of people who could barely afford a $1 ticket to an event.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Family dances! I love that solution. All families should dance together, no matter how they came to be a family, and regardless of any physical or other challenges they may have.

  8. Linda Lord says:

    I immediately wondered how all graduates could afford the clothing described. The complex family situations you pointed out would appear to put unnecessary stress on a number of students. When I graduated many decades ago, all my classmates had the same last names as their parents. This is sure not true any more.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I assume the boys rented, and several of the girls wore “vintage.” My niece, at least didn’t seem embarrassed or diminished by it. She bragged a bit about how little she’d spent to outfit herself for a wedding, two proms and the grand march.

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