Graduation — time to party because the party’s over

By Mike Murphy

It must be graduation time since the stores are displaying colorful inflated Mylar balloons with cheerful sayings like “Congrats Grad” and “See, You Aren’t So Dumb After All!”
It seems like you can get a balloon for almost any occasion nowadays, although I don’t recall seeing a hearse crawling down the street with black balloons attached — not yet anyway. Once, I purchased 80 inflated balloons for a school fundraiser and tried to load them in my car during a wind storm, which nearly sent me floating over Pocatello like Mary Poppins sans the umbrella.
Most countries only have formal graduation ceremonies at the university level. But not here in the United States, because we tend to turn every minor achievement of our children into a BIG DEAL. In this country, we have preschool graduation — giving the youngsters an opportunity to show off their newly acquired skills such as the ability to use crayons for something other than a snack — kindergarten graduation, middle school graduation, high school graduation and on and on.
Of course, I understand that high school graduation is a time-honored tradition that allows parents to justify the recent purchase of their new $9,000 high-tech waterproof HD video camera. Plus, it gives graduate families, friends and relatives an apparently socially acceptable excuse to whoop and holler in public like a troop of monkeys that just won the Publishers Clearing House 5,000-bananas-per-month-for-life prize!
During my years as a student, teacher and parent, I attended so many of these ceremonies that I developed the unique ability to play a nearly recognizable rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” on the kazoo and have personally witnessed the modern evolution of this enhanced interrogation technique otherwise known as high school graduation.
Traditionally, it is believed that the long graduation gowns were first worn because early universities were not well heated back in the 12th century. Plus, the large size of the gowns allowed a medieval student to secretly fiddle with his abacus beneath the gown, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Whereas, today’s graduates are simply texting one another that Mr. Snodgrass, the school counselor, is asleep and about to fall off the stage.
The graduation mortarboard caps appeared around the 14th century and were originally popular with artists because, I suppose, they could double as a palette. Today’s students’ ability to successfully move the cap tassel from the right side to the left is the final graduation requirement, and I have to tell you that I lost count over the years as to how many seniors were retained another semester because they failed this last standardized test. Hopefully, Common Core will correct this sad situation.
The robes and caps were still being worn when I graduated in the 1960s despite the fact that where I lived it was 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity in mid-June and the auditorium did not have air conditioning. Either that, or the teachers and administration were simply trying to get even with my senior class and forgot to turn it on.
All I remember about my graduation is sweating like a pig and praying that it would end before I died from dehydration because those ubiquitous plastic water bottles that people today can’t seem to leave the house for five minutes without apparently had not been invented yet.
No one from my family attended — Dad was at work, and I told Mom to stay home because it was too hot. Same was true of most of my friends’ parents. Back then, graduating from high school was just something that my friends and I assumed we had to do, not really something to celebrate. Basically, I wanted to get it over with so I could get back to work at the grocery store.
Today it seems that everything about graduation other than the garb has changed. Now graduation is a major production: bands, videos, beach balls, posters, cow bells, 32 valedictorians, etc. Graduates’ clans scream, whistle and applaud when they hear their kid’s name like he or she just won the Power Ball. When I hear such a reaction my thought is “Wow, is he the only limb in your family tree to reach this scholarly height?”
Some keynote speakers today simply cut and paste a string of quotations from the Internet, which wouldn’t be so bad if they quoted people like Woody Allen (“Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s pretty damn good”) instead of folks like Sigmund Freud (“Time spent with cats is never wasted”). And, I swear, speakers who read entire books by Dr. Seuss should be tarred and feathered so they can share the audience’s pain.
Finally, today’s parents go to a lot of trouble selecting graduation gifts, everything from laptops to dorm furniture. But I’m pretty sure that another aspect of graduation that hasn’t changed is that just receiving plain old-fashioned cash is still greatly appreciated.

Mike Murphy of Pocatello retired after a 35-year teaching and coaching career. He has a master’s degree in English from the University of Nebraska and is an Associated Press award-winning columnist.