The graduation ceremony is a rite of passage for high school graduates. These are spectacles filled with tradition and nostalgia; a symbolic ritual to prepare graduates for the new responsibilities and opportunities ahead, and to bid farewell to days students will look back on fondly.
As I flip through yearbooks across decades and high schools in St. Catharines, it is clear that the graduation ceremony was a pinnacle in twentieth century teenage culture in our City. I look at the eager, youthful faces of the graduates I see in the yearbooks and wonder about the adventures they went on to pursue and the accomplishments they went on to achieve. I am reminded of my own high school graduation, and I imagine the emotions I felt were similar to what the graduates in these yearbooks were feeling: both excited and anxious for what the future awaited, curious, wistful, eager, proud, nervous, and of course, the simultaneous urge to hold on to what was familiar and to let go. Then, just as now, each student would have fallen into their own place on this spectrum of emotions.
As with all rites of passage, there is certain performative element to the high school graduation ceremony: the wearing of caps, hoods and/or robes; the announcement of each graduate’s name; the walk across the stage; the handing of the diploma; the handshake; and at some point, the traditional graduation song, Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” plays. While these rituals are historically rooted in the commencement ceremonies of European universities, they have found a place, in one way or another, in the modern high school graduation ceremony. Such graduation spectacles emerge in St. Catharines’ yearbooks after the Second World War.
Although the Mack Training School for Nursing (later Mack School for Nurses) was technically a post-secondary institution, its thorough description of the graduation ceremony for its 1958 nursing graduates offers a detailed picture of what many high school graduates in St. Catharines also looked like at the time.
Another highly regarded spectacle of the high school graduation is the valedictory address. Traditionally selected by teaching staff, but possibly also the student body, for their high scholastic standing, the valedictorian is to deliver a speech to their fellow classmates on their behalf. The speech may highlight the trials and triumphs collectively experienced by the graduates, as well as to offer an encouraging, youthful insight into a hopeful future.
The Class of 2020
This year, due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduation ceremonies of the Class of 2020 in St. Catharines and beyond look very different. This change in tradition and ritual does not diminish the incredible accomplishments and exciting opportunities ahead for the Class of 2020. Rather, it marks the special resiliency of this graduating class. This is a moment to create new rituals and new markers to celebrate this cohort of young people who are already proving they have what it takes to make real progress and positive change for our future.
Here, the words of the 1969 St. Catharines Collegiate Institute commencement address still ring true: “The world is full of problems – always has been. You cannot solve them all but the one you do solve which is within your own ability diminishes the sum total by your individual contribution. [You have] a contribution to make – and it is vital.”
A big congratulations to the Class of 2020, we wish you fulfilment in all that you pursue in the future! Though the end of your high school career may not have been what you envisioned, you have the opportunity to use this moment in history to learn, grow, and cultivate a better future.
We are making a call to the community to share what St. Catharines secondary schools doing to celebrate the Class of 2020. How is this rite of passage being marked and commemorated at your school this year? Consider submitting your story to our Legacy of a Pandemic Project, where we are working to document how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our community.
Sara Nixon is a Public Historian and a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.