Well, we graduated a few days ago, and many of us thought it was the nicest ceremony we’d had in years. The weather was perfect, the speaker, writer Andre Dubus III, was superb, and the new seating arrangements—the fourth in my memory—under tents with the audience facing the Ferguson Building, worked out beautifully. And, as has been the case for many years now, the Boston Brass Ensemble provided its inimitable ceremonial music before and after.
For the first time since Arthur Ferguson and the early days of Ben Williams, the academic procession started in the Schoolhouse. Instead of continuing across the quad to our final destination, however, we came halfway down the walk and turned left towards the library—the first left-face maneuver in an LA graduation procession since the spring of 1821, when the seniors had to deviate to circumvent a wayward herd of cows that had broken through the fences on Gibbet Hill in search of new fodder. One hapless senior was trampled underfoot, but he managed to squirm out of the morass in time to receive his diploma, which he used to scrape off his new graduation suit, much to the chagrin of his mother, who had spent three months making it. She got up in front of everyone, boxed his ears, stripped him naked and took the suit home to wash in the river.
When I first came to LA in the mid-1960s, graduation was a hot and somewhat stodgy affair, held in the Gray Building gym without benefit of air conditioning. The audience was smaller than it is today, as the underclassmen went home after exams and only the seniors remained on campus the night before. Seniors and faculty sat in the front row or two of the audience; Mr. Ferguson and whatever dignitaries were present were arrayed on the stage. The only music was provided by the Glee Club, which Mr. Ferguson asked me to take over in the spring of my first year when it became apparent that the regular director, a part-timer who lived somewhere in New Hampshire, had flown the coop. There had been no rehearsals for most of that spring of 1966, my first year. There were two numbers in the repertory. We sang one of them; I think it was “Men of Harlech.” It is brave and hoary and manly and suitable for an old-time nineteenth-century boys’-school graduation, if you don’t mind a text that is utterly irrelevant to the proceedings at hand: “‘Tis the tramp of Saxon foemen, Saxon spearmen, Saxon bowmen,” etc. It’s basically a medieval variation on “Marching Through Georgia.”
Ben Williams moved graduation outside in 1970, and for a few years we faculty sat in state on the asphalt in front of the Gray Building porch—a great place to be seen unless you were fair-skinned or follicly challenged. To the tolling of the Schoolhouse bell, the faculty, followed by the seniors, processed down the walk from the Schoolhouse, the beginning of a tradition that continues today.
The best part of the early Ben graduations was actually the night before, which featured an elaborate sit-down dinner, washed down with vats of Cold Duck and followed by a long and elaborate senior show, the latter being amply fueled by the former. Besides the slide show, there were specially-written skits, musical performances, and—the highlight or low point of the evening, depending on who you were—the Senior Achievement (a.k.a. Bum Laude) Awards. These zingers, whose recipients were painstakingly selected by a Secret Committee of Dick Jeffers, yours truly, and half a dozen trusted seniors, were designed to puncture inflated egos, remind a graduate of an embarrassing moment, or poke gentle fun at some characteristic, like the time we gave a local girl a bucket of R’s to help her ovahcome heuh wickit Massachusetts accent. At least one strutting athletic hero was awarded a pocket mirror, so that he could always carry around a picture of his favorite person. You get the idea. Maybe you got an award.
Alas, soberer times came upon us, political correctness reared its ugly head, and the Senior Achievement Awards went the way of the 18-year-old drinking age, the victim of a couple of unfortunate backfires and the gradual loss of our collective ability to laugh at ourselves. But it sure was fun while it lasted! Maybe next year...
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This will be the last Shep’s Place until September. I hope you enjoy reading these reminiscences, which would not be possible without you! If you have memories or stories you’d like to share, drop me an e-mail over the next couple of months. Best wishes to all of you for a wonderful summer.
Wednesday June, 13, 2012 at 09:55AM