By Rita Maisel
There is something very nostalgic about Graduation ceremonies. As you sit on the chairs and bleachers the stories filter down around you from the memories of people in the crowd. You often hear the words “it wasn’t like this when we graduated…..” and experience does tell us that may be because the ceremonies all have some familiar moments but each one takes on its own character.
My mother was the youngest and twelfth child in her family but the only one who was able to go to high school. That was common in many of the original homesteading families where the older children never got past the fourth grade. They could read, write, do simple math and were needed on the farm or could work and bring money home to help with family expenses. Without access to more schooling many were recognized in later life as self-educated and surprisingly wise about the world in general. While my Grandpa made the rules for his own family, he died in February, and the following fall my mother, encouraged by other family members, became the first to go to high school and marked the transition as nieces and nephews graduated from not only high school but several went on the college.
Our immediate family had little experience with graduations until the year I was in 8th grade. In that era students in rural schools had a large graduation ceremony at Langdon (sometimes as part of the county fair proceedings we are told), but “town school” eighth graders graduated at the same ceremony as high school students. That year they must have ushered the eighth grade in earlier because my class sat in the front row on the gym floor while the honored high school graduates sat on the stage with the speaker of the day, at least one local pastor, school board members and the superintendent of the Langdon School. The only real memory I have of that occasion is that we were all handed a small diploma and when we opened them realized the person handing them out had given us diplomas with someone else’s name, so we had to quickly exchange them! We wanted to be sure the one we were holding had our own name on it! Some schools still combine the graduations, and some honor eighth graders with a celebration all their own.
Attending the 2019 LAHS graduation ceremony brought back personal memories beginning with entering the building. There were greeters at the doorway to open the doors (all boys) and then you walked inside to a long line of pretty girls who handed out the programs. Coming indoors my eyes are slow to adjust. Looking at this larger than usual group of young ladies, I was not sure I recognized any of them! What happened to the years when the junior honor students were few and far between? My class was the largest in school in our day, and we were given to understand they had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find six of us with grades good enough to qualify as honorary ushers. Three boys and three girls were given this task. Relatives who considered me less than honor roll status were sure the people in charge had made a mistake. My mother thought this was an honor and did her best to convince me to regard it as such – until she found out about the dress required. The boys were to wear suits, white shirts and ties. The girls were to wear formals. If you came from a family or church which approved of dancing, girls who had attended the prom had a dress on hand. I came from a church where the pastor attended school parties specifically to escort members of his congregation off the dance floor with a stern lecture. In other words, attending a prom was never allowed. My mother was into recycling before the word was invented so a suitable dress was provided. All the young ladies chosen as honorary ushers in 2019 were beautifully dressed, and probably none of them wore their prom dress or something mom whipped up. Any one of them could have qualified for the Cinderella’s slipper award for their elegant shoes – a feature ladies tend to look for at modern events.
The next year it was our turn to graduate. Some knew what they would be doing next. In several cases the wedding invitations had already been sent out. Others watched the mail to see if “Uncle” had chosen their number for military service. I remember no scholarships to apply for or to be given out although I understand some of our classmates did receive them. Mrs. DeVold, who was always a very accomplished musician, directed the music for many Langdon graduations including the year I graduated, so I do not know when the transition was made to having the band play. Today all of us love the music the band provides, both while the graduates are still with the group and after they leave for the procession and the younger players “graduate” themselves into the role they hope to have in the band next year.
Did any of our classmates speak? Possibly, but their words have not remained as a life-long challenge. Usually a politician or possibly the dean of a college spoke at long ago graduations. Because I was working and going to school it would be years before I attended another graduation (the class of 1973) where some of my long ago classmates then sat in the parent’s section of the auditorium. That class was large and had exchange students who spoke that day. In listening to Brianna and Hannah at the 2019 ceremony, I realized their presentations rank up there with Helen Jennings Olson (1942) quoted in an earlier column and with several other memorable talks of more recent years. Grandchildren and friends remember key words from the heart long after they have been presented.
Our diplomas were handed to us by the school board president (the same one who had that job when we graduated from eighth grade). Once again, we got diplomas with someone else’s name on them and had to exchange when we got to our seats. We did not have our picture taken with him, and he did not shake our hands or give us a hug. Times have changed. I expect we might have had a formal handshake from the superintendent who also did not give hugs. We got to keep the tassels, but the gowns and caps had to be returned to the company we had rented them from.
There is no memory of an open house long ago although most families had a family gathering. The usual gifts were a wristwatch or, if you already had that, you might get luggage. Gifts left at the house were jewelry, money gifts (mine was earmarked for the first portable typewriter which lasted about forty years), a new version of the New Testament from the church and other gifts. Girls who did not already have them looked for diamonds, and some were received. Each girl could choose a spoon in her sterling pattern from Carlson’s Jewelry, and while you were there you could look over the displays of silver, china and crystal to order for upcoming weddings. Entertaining was very fashionable in those days. Some of those traditions were still being followed in 1973 when several younger cousins graduated along with the children of some of my classmates.
Things seemed simpler when I graduated. If you had a job you went to the job. We had no career classes or counseling provided by the school. When asked about the future most girls responded with “marry a farmer and have ten kids”. Most of our classmates came from large families and expected to carry on family traditions. After years of asking for a nurse kit for Christmas, I planned to be a nurse “some day”. This was not in my mother’s plans. She had attended Interstate Business College and wanted me to do the same. She envisioned me becoming a secretary for an insurance company. A good steady job sounded kind of dull. A cousin was joining the Air Force. Maybe I could be a stewardess. Having worked in the school office (not for pay) I had been sent at times to “baby-sit” in classes where the teacher had a family emergency. That experience led to the decision teaching was not going to be in my future. However, forces beyond our control sometimes take over. There are ways you can work your way through school if you don’t mind dropping out from time to time, having more than one job at a time or going to night school and working days. As it turned out there were many adventures along the way, and years later I ended up teaching second graders – the exact class that had sent me down another educational path years before. Today’s graduates are much more organized in their preparation for the future.