Pomp, Circumstance, and Pods: A Graduation Story

Recently The Husband and I traveled across the country to attend a high school graduation. My sister-in-law (also known as my Teenage Dialogue Consultant) was among the eager graduates.

Having come from a large family, I have been to many a high school graduation. Granted, it has been a few years since I last attended one, but I felt I was prepared for whatever lay ahead.

I was wrong, my friends. I was wrong.

Oh, it started off seeming familiar. We began with the time honored tradition of Arriving Ridiculously Early to Obtain Good Seats. My mother-in-law sat on one end and I sat on the other to guard The Seats until the rest of the crew arrived about 45 minutes later. I brought a book, but I was afraid to start reading lest someone try to sneak past and take our seats. I needed to be available to give the infamous “These Seats Are Taken, So You Best Watch Yourself” scowl.

The scowl, as it turns out, was not necessary. The graduation was in a massive sports arena, so there was plenty of room for everyone to observe the great American tradition of Leaving As Many Spaces In Between Each Other As Possible Lest My Air Come Into Contact With Your Air.

I still kept my angry face at the ready, though, which was not hard because 1) I’m still fighting the war on insomnia and 2) the chairs were really, really uncomfortable.

Then after an eternity of waiting, it was time for the ceremony. “Pomp and Circumstance” began to play at full blast as a never ending herd of maroon-clad teenagers with goofy mortarboard hats poured into their seats. They were joined by the faculty and staff whose robes were slightly more dignified. But what they lacked in ridiculous hats they made up for in multicolored stoles, cords, shawls, vestments, and other regalia to send a loud clear message: “I am boiling to death under all these layers, but at least I look scholarly.” You know that saying about making sure you always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident? The academic version of that saying is “make sure you’re wearing as much academic regalia as possible, so if you pass out from heat exhaustion at least the paramedics will know you’re well educated.”

Then came the speeches which comprised the bulk of the ceremony. We began with all the student speakers: the valedictorian, the salutatorian, the student class president, the head of the football team, the lead cheerleader, the student voted most popular, the student voted most likely to succeed, the student voted “Best Hair,” the student voted “Best Smile,” and finally a guy named Steve who seemed like he was an okay kid and never really got into trouble but probably wasn’t going to do much with his life so hey let’s just give him this honor because he probably won’t say anything stupid. Okay, they didn’t really have that many speakers, but it started to feel like it after a while. Valedictorian, Salutatorian, Class President, Football Guy, Cheerleader, Success Kid, Best Hair, Best Smile, and Steve appear to have gotten together and drawn cliched graduation statements out of a hat to form the basis of their speeches: “I know you won’t remember much, but if you only remember one thing, remember what I’m about to say.” “Congrats, guys, we finally did it!” “Wow, it seems like just yesterday we started high school and now we’re here.” “Dream big! The sky’s the limit!” “We’re gonna change the world!” And then of course there were quotes. Lots and lots of quotes. Martin Luther King. Confucius. SmashMouth. (Yes, one of the speakers actually quoted SmashMouth.)

I thought we were about to move on, but first it was time for the school choir to sing The Inspirational Song, which was basically all the cliches set to music.

Then it was time for the school officials to speak: the principal, the vice principal, the superintendent, the school board chair, the most popular teacher, the least popular teacher, the lunch lady, and the janitor. Yes, the school official speaker list was just as long as the student speaker list, and the messages just as cliched. There was less SmashMouth, however, and more encouragement to get out there and do something with your diploma. Plus there were lots of self-congratulatory statements. Think of a quarterly report sent to stockholders in speech form (“this class has the highest ever earnings of potential scholarship offers, has saved the district thousands of dollars, was certified green by the EPA, please pass our next levy, thank you”).

Then it was time for the choir to sing The Motivational Song, which is slightly different from The Inspirational Song. The Inspirational Song was more about pride in your accomplishments. The Motivational Song was more of a call to action set to music. (“Face your fears, achieve your dreams, move out of your parents’ house, get a jooooooooooooooob!”) At least I think that’s what they were saying. They were singing in standard choir voice meaning I could tell they were singing something, but it’s anyone’s guess what the actual words are.

At this point, I found myself wishing that graduation ceremonies had fast passes like at amusement parks. You know how you can pay extra to get a special ticket that lets you cut the line for the big popular roller coasters? Maybe there could be a graduation fast pass that lets me come in during The Motivational Song and get seated just in time for the graduates to walk across the stage. A girl can dream, right?

Now we’ve finally gotten to the main event, and this is where things started to get weird. All the high school graduations I had previously attended in my home state of Ohio were loud, and they got especially raucous at this point. Someone among the graduates would bust out a beach ball (or two, or three, or a dozen) and start throwing them around, causing the school administrators to go nuts and give lots of evil glares as they tried in vain to catch the beach balls. And then every time a graduate’s name was called, someone would blast an air horn, the parents would dance in the aisles, lots of shouting would commence, etc. Each name would make the crowd get louder and louder. At my youngest sister’s graduation, I couldn’t even hear her name being called because the crowd had gone into Full Party Mode. So I braced myself for the noise. The first name was called, and then…


That was it. A quiet, one syllable, robotic woo. The next name was called. “Woo.” And the next. “Woo.”

While the quiet was a welcome surprise, it was a little unnerving. I secretly wondered if the crowd had been replaced by pod people. After all, they get you when you sleep, and from the looks of it plenty of people fell asleep during The Recital of the Cliches. If nothing else, my butt was asleep from sitting in that uncomfortable seat for hours.

Occasionally, someone would emit a slightly louder “woo.” And I did hear a millisecond of air horn. When my sister-in-law’s name was called, I yelled her nickname. I was slightly afraid to do so for fear of being attacked by the pod people, but no one pointed and screamed at me, so I was safe.

Other random observations:

*I have never seen a graduation class so…white. SO. MANY. MEGANS. For the most part they read names in alphabetical order, but sometimes they got off track. I secretly suspected that the students were organized in order of how white sounding their names were instead of a traditional alpha split.

*At one point toward the end of the speeches, a bagpiper showed up. I thought perhaps instead of the traditional air horn someone had planned to launch into “Danny Boy” after their graduate’s name was called. But then the bagpiper sat down without making a sound, and I was sorely disappointed.

Eventually we all made it out of the stadium and took lots of pictures and picked the restaurant for the celebratory meal and life went on. I was ridiculously happy to get back into casual clothes and take a walk so that feeling could return to my butt.

If you have plans to attend graduation any time soon, may I make some recommendations? Bring a seat cushion. Read that book while you wait. And would someone please, PLEASE bring some bagpipes!