As the school year reaches its end in Coastal Georgia, the newspapers and local conversation are all about graduating students and the traditions of this important rite of passage.
The school systems in the United States and my native United Kingdom are very different. U.K. schools do not award anything like a diploma. My mother said that when she was a student, she was awarded a “leaving certificate” on achieving the required academic standard and reaching “school-leaving age,” which was 15 in her day.
Not any more, however: It just ends without the equivalent of a graduation or diploma. In my view, this is a missed opportunity to celebrate. Our American cousins certainly do this much better, with the U.S. graduation ceremony representing a real rite of passage.
Instead of a party, the British take a number of individual tests called GCSEs and A Levels in different subjects to see if we can get accepted into higher education or our chosen profession. If you think this sounds boring and a bit anti-climactic, you are right.
Graduating from university in England, however, has more similarities to a U.S.-style graduation, including wearing a cap and gown, holding a formal ceremony as the degree is awarded and the all-important taking of photographs. I remember my graduation being very formal with the ceremony followed by tea on the lawn and then a party with my friends later that evening, after my parents and grandparents were at home tucked up for the night. Young people never change, I guess.
Some graduation traditions strike me as particularly American: yearbooks, yearbook signings and the graduation ring. I only recently learned that the tradition of class rings began at West Point in 1835 to symbolize the beginning of the graduate’s new life as an adult. Over time, individual schools across the U.S. developed their own ring designs and ceremonies. For example, did you know that in addition to the graduate’s initials or name being engraved inside the ring’s band, those from the venerable Massachusetts Institute of Technology actually feature the campus map on the inside?
Of course, the biggest thing that generations of U.K. students have been jealous about is prom. As a British school girl in the 1980s, no one got to go to a prom. Apparently, some schools in the U.K. have introduced this tradition, but sadly it is too late for me. Raised on “Grease” and other American movies, we were envious of the Americans who appeared to plan for their prom nights with as much excitement as planning their wedding day.
The whole drama of prom night seems to unfold many weeks before the night itself, as stores fill with beautiful dresses. It is impossible to enter a department store without hearing discussions between students and their mothers about the suitability of different outfits and shoes.
Even flowers have a language and life of their own on prom night. For a tutorial in the history and proper protocols surrounding corsages and boutonnieres, The Etiquette School of Ohio’s website says the tradition comes “from a time period, long ago, when flowers were worn to make one smell heavenly while dancing with a partner. Frequent showers, expensive perfumes and air conditioning were rare, if available at all.”
The ESO also covers the unfortunate circumstance of your companion giving you flowers that don’t match your outfit, which is to graciously thank your date and “make no mention of the mismatch. Doing so would hurt their feelings.”
I smile when I think about the quote from the late Davy Jones of the Monkees, a fellow Brit who, like me, loved living in America and who my girlfriends and I had a crush on. He said, “I get hate letters from girls all over America because I won’t go to the prom with them.” I might have been one of them, and we didn’t even have proms.
God bless America!
Email Francis at email@example.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.