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Rite of passage for 5 graduates

Published June 12. 2010 09:00AM

At the June board meeting in 1910, Tamaqua's directors decided to formalize the school's commencement by giving the five graduates the "privilege" to wear caps and gowns.

In an opinion on June 17, the Tamaqua Courier said the action by the board was commendable, but could have gone even farther.

"We should like to have seen the board take a more definite action in ordering that they be worn at all future commencement exercises but even so the action is one that will eventually lead to the elimination of frills and floffs and make the commencement exercises what they should be - a culmination of the school days in a dignified, unostentatious manner and not the display of Parisian fashion molders."

The writer went on to explain how the wearing of caps and gowns made all graduates equal, not defining them by class status or family wealth because of the clothes they wore.

"It is human nature for parents to bedeck their offspring at graduation with the very best possible, sometimes at great sacrifice, in order that they may shine with the rest of the class on the eventful night," he wrote. "If one who is less fortunate than her sister graduate knows she must appear in her last summer's gown - no matter how beautiful it might be in fashion, she knows she will feel conspicuous on the stage and oftimes stops school before graduation in order to avoid this humiliation because she realizes that her parents are in no position to provide her with extravagant raiment."

He ended the opinion by stating that the uniform cap and gown placed all graduates on an equal playing field.

"When the cap and gown is worn all graduates mount the stage on equal footing and if there is a special illumination for any, the light of knowledge makes it."

Besides being the first Tamaqua graduating class to wear the cap and gown, the 1910 class was also the first to operate under the four-year course of study at the high school. The day of graduation - June 27 - was also the last day of school in the district.

The origin of the cap and gown in history is traced to several sources. One tradition dates it back to the Celts when Druid priests wore capes with hoods to symbolize their superiority and higher intelligence.

Another source traces the cap and gown tradition to the first Muslim university in Europe in the 9th century. When the students completed their education, they were dressed with traditional Muslim attire. People knew that the students had received a higher education by the Muslims.

That "hood" or "cap" tradition still identifies the student's degree at an academic institution. The tassel that is attached (and sometimes the color of the cap and gown or scarf) is used to signify academic achievement.

Prior to the 1950s the color of the graduation gown was gray. U.S. and European countries began using gown colors as far back as the 1800s to signify students' area of study. During the 1950s, American students began asking for caps and gowns that represented their school colors which personalized the ceremonies even more.

The graduation ceremony itself is considered a rite of passage, marking a transition from one stage in a student's life to another. In coining the phrase "rite of passage," Arnold van Gennep, a noted French ethnographer and folklorist, believed this rite included: 1) Separation from Society; 2) Inculcation-transformation; and 3) Return to Society in the new status.

When the two ladies and three gentlemen who made up the Tamaqua class of 1910 appeared for the first time in their caps and gowns for their rite of passage, a Tamaqua Courier reporter noted a new air of dignity with the ceremony.

The reporter noted that they "looked like real collegians in their simple but dignified raiment."

The five graduates received the royal treatment from the very beginning of the evening, arriving at the hall in automobiles. This was special in itself since there were only about 30 motor vehicles in the town.

As the graduates marched to the platform, a banner in front of the stage carried the class motto in the class colors: "Vincit. Qui Se Vincit," which means "He Conquers, Who Conquers Himself."

The program impressed the large crowd, not to mention the reporter. Drawing some of the loudest applause were two of the graduates who spoke to the assembly. In her valedictory address, which included the history and class prophecy, Edna R. Reeses kept the "audience and her classmates smiling throughout."

Fred Seal's "masterly essay on "Irrigation," which showed the great impact it had for the farmer, was called one of "the most interesting numbers on the program."

"The graduates looked charming in their flowing black gowns and it is quite likely that future classes will follow in their footsteps," the writer prophesied.

The 1910 rite of passage was indeed special for the handful of graduates.

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