Well, here's another look back at my musings from college days long since gone. I submitted this one for "Anthropology 116: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol" during the Fall of 2003.
Every year in June (and, less commonly, May) all across the country, people take part in a sort of rite of passage that occurs when one is nearing the end of their so-called adolescence. This ritual generally spans racial, social, economic, and religious barriers such that anyone can take part in it so long as they are willing to spend the four years in preparation of the event that marks the ritual. This rite of passage is, of course, high school graduation, and in considering this “rite of passage” in more than just name alone, a relatively close study of its background, structure, features, and participants is necessary to classify it as such.
We all understand how a high school graduation works: the students march in, their relatives and collective acquaintances observe, the procedure of graduation takes place, and the ceremony ends; but what of the significance of this in light of ritual? Does a typical high school graduation carry with it the requirements necessary to be categorized as a rite of passage (i.e. where one thing changes to another)? First, consider the “ritual space” about which the ceremony takes place. Does it always occur in a similar location? Outdoors or indoors, it would be unheard of to hold a high school graduation anywhere other than on the school grounds where the students attended. This marks the rite of passage as having begun and ended in the same general environment, thus we can conclude that what has changed is not the place but the people inhabiting it.
Then, if the ritual space is a constant (as we would expect of a rite of passage), what of the “ritual action”? In this, we must consider what really goes on during a high school graduation. At the beginning of the ceremony the graduating students enter the ritual space, single file, in like-height pairs, and walk in step toward a tiered-riser of sorts where they are positioned with the tallest in back (forming the front of the procession) and the shortest in front (forming the rear of the procession). Generally, the highest achieving academic paired with the next highest achiever (valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively), are positioned in the front center as a mark of their achievement. Together, these particulars create a theme of ritual that is unbroken and displays a sense of order and pride coupled with the fact that the students are about to graduate.
The marched procession is accompanied by a musical number commonly known as “Pomp and Circumstance,” by which the timed steps of the procession are accounted. It would be strange to perform the graduation ceremony without this song, and stranger still to perform it outside the ceremony; hence the song is of ritual importance. These ceremonies also see the highest few achievers from each class give a brief speech before the customary conference of diplomas. In this we must note three things. First, the term “class” exemplifies who participated in the ritual, namely those students and only those students who have completed high school in that specific school for that specific year. Second, the term “diplomas” refers to a special document which is used only during ceremonies such as these to verify the student’s graduation. And third, the speeches serve as reference to reflect on those events that led up to the ceremony itself. By these three points one can see how ritual sound, ritual objects, and ritual language further mark the validity of a high school graduation as a rite of passage.
Beyond that, a ritual must possess a focus for change, wherein, to borrow a phrase, “The cocoon grows to become the butterfly.” Careful consideration of how my high school graduation ceremony affected me yields the following. Regarding students in high school, they are like inside a cocoon—a closed environment, shielding away “harmful” things while at the same time nourishing. The students’ intention while there is to learn and in effect change their modes of thinking about certain things (e.g. reading, math, the sciences) so that they will be ready for the next step of their lives (should they decide to take that step). Ultimately, change is sought out through the process of high school, and verified by the graduation ritual.
Symbolism can also be a major component, if not the culmination, of the ritual process. Some of the symbols of the graduation ritual are clear to see such as maturation, knowledge, readiness, and dedication. Innately, these are values of which any community or society would benefit from, strengthening the idea that this rite of passage is not bound by cultural moors. High school graduation signifies the end of a change from minor to adult in modern life, but it also designates the beginning of a potential new stage where one enters a different, more affecting, cocoon. High school graduation is a formal sendoff for the student, granting this person permission to pursue whatever career they desire, where often the next step (or cocoon) is college.
Obviously for me, the intended goals of the aforementioned ritual have been achieved; otherwise this paper on said topic would not have existed. I remember high school graduation as something very meaningful, for those too who only observed. The ritual reasserted what high school had been about and where it was going to take me. Not only that, but it separated me from those who had not graduated, and thus, perhaps, exemplified the most important element of a rite of passage. The ritual of graduation, and indeed the greater ritual of high school, is in essence not a mandatory one, rather it is so ingrained in modern day society that to ignore it risks ostracization. And while there are many of us waiting to go from cocoon to butterfly, and back again, some of us are waiting to see what we will become next.
[Afterward: It’s interesting now to read this, and wonder how much of what I was writing at the time I understood? Was there more I was hinting at that didn’t get covered due to length or laziness? At the end of the second-to-last paragraph, it can be inferred that there are other cocoons, other steps left unsaid. What about a relationship? A career? Family? Any of these are equally plausible and commonplace pursuits after schooling. Are we then stuck in a revolving door of cocoon to butterfly to cocoon—never truly evolving, just moving from one stage to another in a monotonous cycle of beginnings and endings? Is this why people of advancing age always claim why they still don’t know anything after so many years? How then can you break this cycle without bucking the system? It seems some risk of being ostracized is important. Being outside the norm allows us a different perspective. Stray too far outside the norm and you risk being a hermit or an outcast, even unto yourself. It’s an involuntary approach, but a selective approach. You may not be able to control all the stimuli that affect you inside the cocoon, but you can control how you react to those stimuli. With high school in mind, a reasonable (and even healthy) level of ostracization might mean not having a girlfriend/going to the prom, not taking drugs, not getting elected to class office, or not caving to peer pressure. Then again, maybe I’m a little biased in my own opinions. What do you think?]