JH is a senior at an all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives in Pasadena, CA.
JH talked to me about a school retreat he just went on, which they host every year:
“We have a different retreat every year, but the senior retreat is called ‘Kairos’…we spend like the last week of classes at a center near Santa Barbara, but they don’t really tell us where we’re going…we just left after school one day. It’s pretty religious-based and we talked a lot about God and the Catholic Church and stuff, but more of it was spiritual, like we talked about our personal relationship with God and spirituality and stuff. On the second day they surprised us with letters from our parents, and both of our parents had to write us a letter with stuff they may not have told us or with like, things they wanted us to know…some people got letters from siblings too, and they mostly talked about how we’re at an important transition in our lives, talking about becoming an adult and stuff. And then we all had to share a lot too, and people talked about really awful things that had happened in their past that we had no idea about, and our teachers and the priests did too…I think we all got a lot closer, opening up like that…I wasn’t expecting to really buy into the whole retreat thing, but I think I learned a lot in the end. When we got back, they led us into the auditorium where all our parents were sitting, and they were cheering for us, and we went and sat up on stage where they talked a little about the week, and then we all had to go up to the microphone and talk about our experiences that week, and then we would go and sit with our parents.”
I asked JH if he felt it was more of a religious retreat or a school/class retreat:
“Definitely more about our class than religion. The religion was a big part of it, but even just going to a Catholic school they were never necessarily trying to convert us or anything, and they were really inclusive both at the retreat and at the school like in general.”
A lot of high schools that have the resources put on these “retreats” for their students, especially at the end of senior year, or the end of their high school career. It helps usher these students through the liminal period, or help them slow down and understand the importance of the transition they’re in the midst of, and by emphasizing parental involvement JH’s school highlights the community aspect, where families would play a big role in celebrating the child’s transition to adulthood. This is actually the first kind of retreat I’d heard of that gave parents such a role – usually it revolves more around the school’s influence and presence in the students’ lives.
“So in Norway, when we graduate high school, we have this tradition that the two weeks leading up to our, um, independence day, um, we essentially do college in two weeks. And by that we, uh, everyone essentially has like a startup company where they fund, they get money and they work and they buy a bus. And this bus is to represent a group of people that have together to party on this bus for these two coming weeks. You build this bus to represent you as a group. So you paint it, you have your own song. They usually spend about twenty to forty thousand dollars on these buses. And they pay a couple to three thousand dollars per song or more. People live off this shit. They graduate high school and they just make music for these crazy graduating students. And they have a pretty decent life. Umm, so what you do is you do this and then you buy a suit, you buy like overalls that are completely red and covered in the Norwegian flag, and it’s got different colors. That’s the only time that you’ll ever see these colors in Norway which is why I find it so baffling that people in America keep wearing and wearing their flag everywhere. I guess it’s like weird, it’s like nationalism, which is bad, but for these two weeks in Norway: totally cool. So everyone gets drunk, everyone has sex with each other, there’s a bunch of STD things going on and like a lot of people take precautions so there’s just condoms everywhere in the capital for those two weeks, literally just so that teenagers can just grab them passing by. They’ll be in like metro stations, bus stops, random places there’ll just be like a little cup of condoms because people are just like doing things all the time. So there’s a lot of drugs, a lot of drinking, and you kinda like, you do all of those, you get all your immaturity out. That’s the whole point of it. So by the time you have your independence day, everyone’s so fucking exhausted that when you actually celebrate the day that you celebrate Independence Day and that you celebrate your graduation, then finals happen. Afterwards. So it’s a big thing in Norway where people have been trying to get the finals to happen before these two weeks. Because what happens is a lot of, like, not a lot, but maybe one out of twenty people failed their finals because of this tradition. Every year. So they’re trying to change that now. I think it’s going to change this year, but the fact that the government, that all entire Norway works around this insane tradition: just get fucked up and have sex for two weeks? It’s fucking fantastic.”
The source definitely looked upon this tradition with a lot of happiness. It seemed to be one of his favorite parts of high school. He said it’s not a very long-standing tradition, but that it’s definitely been around as long as he’s been alive. He says it’s a way for them to release all the pent up stress from the year. It allows them to let loose and do crazy things that, under other circumstances, wouldn’t be allowed.
This tradition seems to come with its own sort of hall pass. It sounds like the kind of thing that these kids would never get away with if only there weren’t so many of them participating in it. That’s probably how it came about in the first place. Some group of kids wanted to let loose, but they knew they’d get in trouble, so they got a whole bunch of people together and went nuts. It probably didn’t fly as much back when it started, but now that it’s mainstream, the whole country probably knows to expect this debauchery and just lets it slide.
What also makes it interesting is that it involves a lot of responsibility. It’s almost like a rite of passage, really, because these kids have to work and save up money in order to be able to afford this massive, two-week rager. They also need to plan and organize it all themselves. Basically, they’re doing very adult things in order to be able to do some very not adult things. Quite the contrast.
Information on the Informant: The informant for this collection is my brother who currently is a Junior at Georgetown and studying Business. He plays football there and is very involved in Business clubs and intramural sports. He is an incredibly avid sports fan and follows football, baseball, basketball, and hockey very closely. He attended Loyola High school, the same school that I went to, which is an all-boys Jesuit school in downtown Los Angeles. While there he was the starting quarterback of the football team and also led numerous retreats while holding a position on student council.
The tradition from the informant:
“After every single graduation ceremony for the seniors at Loyola, it is an unwritten tradition for all the graduates to smoke a cigar after the diplomas are passed out. I don’t know why it started but it is mostly just a symbol of our next chapter in life, where we are older and more mature. It is one of those traditions where the younger students look at it as a sign of success because in order to do it you have to graduate. Some of the faculty aren’t too fond of it because it can be dangerous having hundreds of cigars lit up in a small area but all the students do it regardless because they all feel as if they deserve it.”
Analysis: This example of smoking cigars after a graduation, or an initiation into the next chapter of life, is a good example of a ritual done in order to enter into adulthood. Additionally, the tradition makes sense that it occurs at an all guys school because typically smoking cigars is something that guys enjoy more than girls do. Not to say that girls don’t smoke cigars but simply that it is typically done by men. Also, one other notable thing is that the cigars are usually fancy cigars that are purchased by the father’s of the sons who are smoking the cigars. The father buying the cigar is a symbol of initiation into adulthood after high school.
Me: “Do people look for their specific lip marks when they come back?”
Informant: “Oh god no, it would be impossible to find them.”
In the informant’s ballet company, when a member was doing their last performance of a show (as in, your last ever Nutcracker performance), it was tradition to put on bright red lipstick and kiss a specific wall, leaving a mark. The mark not only signified you were a part of the show, but was symbolic of a part of you always being tied to the company. People would come back years after graduating to visit the wall they had kissed previously.
The informant was involved in ballet through most of her life and knows a lot about the secrets and traditions carried with being a part of a ballet company. She takes them all very seriously and indicates that most all of the other dancers did as well. According to the informant, everyone kissed the wall at some point as long as they were in the company for a full run of a show. The informant wasn’t clear about exactly when you kissed the wall — it was after the show, but not necessarily directly after completion. Additionally, the go-to action didn’t used to be kissing the wall. The tradition used to be signing it, but it got too messy, so the lip marks were the evolved method.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this piece of folklore is that the tradition changed from signing the wall to kissing it, for reason of “the signing got too messy,” according to the informant. It’s perhaps telling of how significant or deeply rooted a tradition is when the reason for completely changing it is one of rather minor inconvenience.
My informant is a student USC and a member of the Greek community. I asked him if he had any initiation stories or customs on the row or in his fraternity. He chose to tell me about the Senior Fountain Run closely approaching.
Informant: The Senior Fountain Run happens every year at USC and it’s literally the entire Senior class running around the campus at night, drunk, and jumping in every fountain.
Me: Why do you think this became a tradition?
Informant: I couldn’t tell you the real reason but its kind of one of those things I have always wanted to and the University lets us do it right before we leave. I mean we have like 20 fountains around campus that I walk by everyday, how could I not want to jump in?
Me: Ya makes sense, especially during these hot Spring days. What are you looking forward to most, aside from finally jumping in those fountains of course.
Informant: Being drunk while I do it, haha, but I guess just seeing everyone that I haven’t seen in a long time, like friends from the dorms freshman year that I may not see anymore. Probably gonna be a really nostalgic moment.
The fountain run tradition is one that has been long standing at USC and for good reason. There is a non-spoken agreement between the students and staff that they can break the rules just this once to do something they have always wanted. Its almost a gratuitous gesture by the University by thanking them and effectively saying, “you are about to leave, so we’ll bend the rules.” The tradition certainly says a lot about the importance of the fountains to the students as well.
There are separate things for juniors about to be seniors, and then for seniors about to graduate.
Juniors becoming seniors, we did senior dinner. It’s not super memorable or anything… First, all the girls get really dressed up and we take pictures on senior grass. We all just get assigned tables set up on the senior grass, each table with one faculty member and we all eat dinner… and there’s a couple of student performances, like dances/singing, that kind of thing… It’s happy; it’s basically the formal event where everyone gets stoked to be seniors…
When it’s the night before graduation, the graduating seniors do confessions and senior streaking.
We sit in a bigger room together and have “confessions,” where everyone can just say what they wanna say. We’re in this big room in a circle, and everyone takes a turn presenting whatever it is they wanted to say. It can be a confession, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be anything someone needs to get off their chest before graduating. And everyone sits around and listens, surprisingly respectfully. Then right after the confession is when we do senior streaking…
Senior streaking—so everyone runs around butt naked. It’s very bizarre. Everyone (participants aka seniors, and spectators aka everyone else) just kind of knows it’s gonna happen, but they just pretend like it’s not… And then we get on senior grass—we have a patch of grass that’s just for seniors—and then we take off all our clothes together, at the same time, then we all run in a loop around campus together, like by every dorm… and everybody else in the dorms is watching. And then once we’re done with that loop, we all go back to our respective dorms. And it’s awkward because everyone has seen us naked now… but it’s the night before graduation, so the question of “who cares?” is already implied.
How did you come across this folklore: “This is a boarding school tradition, but I don’t know if it’s just Hotchkiss that does it.”
Other information: “I don’t know how people find out about these, but they’re some of those things where your participation is mandatory and somehow you manage to a) find out about it in time, and b) go through with it, maybe because you just have to.”
This is another senior ritual, of which there are probably a virtually infinite amount, that emphasizes the liminal period between seniors and non-seniors, between high school and the “real world.” During this time period, it becomes more acceptable to do things that are otherwise tabooized in society (for example, streaking…), leniency toward seniors increases, and they are able to bond through crossing these societal boundaries.
Informant Bio: Informant is my friend from high school who also goes to the University of Southern California. We currently live together and he is a third year electrical engineering major. His dad is from Concord, Massachusetts and represents a large blend of different cultures. His mom is from upstate New York and is mostly of Hungarian, Italian and American ancestry.
Context: I was interviewing the informant about childhood traditions and rituals that he remembered well.
Item: “So, essentially, uh we had some middle school graduation parties but they were definitely less extreme, mostly because we cared less about graduating middle school; it was harder to motivate us. Um, but, our high school graduations (I grew up with three siblings, I’m the youngest), they were all pretty comparable. We have a pretty big back yard at home, um, so we would do a lot of outdoor cooking and grilling. One of them we did a roast with our backyard fire. We invited a bunch of extended family (I have a lot of that live in Massachusetts). So we invited grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles and it was usually always pretty low key events. What typically would happen would be our immediate family and a couple other people would be there for like six or seven hours. And then there would be more of a steady stream, kind of an open place for people to come give congratulations and thanks. It was kind of low key because it was never at any point too packed. Um, so essentially in terms of traditions and things that were always the same, there was always lots of food. Everything seemed to revolve around food, with a large table that was sort of the centerpiece, the center attraction. Typically, there was lots of grilling, and, my dad, who’s a pretty good chef would always ‘go big’. It sort of fell in the holiday category in that regard where like whoever is graduated would get nagged about what they want to eat all the time. Some of the things we’d always do…strangely enough bocce was always a regular habit. Um, so big family bocce games, and then, uh, definitely a lot of drinking (laughs) at least amongst the adults. Like when I was younger not so much since I had older siblings but the adults would always were like drinking to celebrate and make it festive. Um, also it was more formal in that people would actually dress up and treat it as a big deal. It was sort of ceremonious in that regard and wasn’t just a thrown together party”.
Informant Analysis: “My family’s significance…academics were always stressed in my family. It was sort of not only stressed, but kind of like ‘you need to do this’. I feel like, a lot of times, parents, uh it’s more on the negative side so if you’re slacking off in school you get in trouble. But, my parents are more the opposite in that we were rewarded for doing well. Back in elementary school, I remember my dad did this thing where if we got a’s on our report cards, he would give us 100 bucks. Which, when you’re in elementary school is a ridiculous amount of money, so it [the graduation celebration] kind of was like a continuation of sorts where ‘you finished high school so we’re going to celebrate’”.
Analysis: My friend Max has had a rich childhood with strong family values and traditions. The graduation party described above shows just how important academics are to many Americans, especially people in New England. It is seen as the avenue to success and is treated as such. Most celebrations heavily involve food, which is no surprise here.
The playing of bocce might seem a little curious, but, as the informant notes his family represents a blend of European ancestry. No doubt some traditions have been carried over, adapted and otherwise blended together.
What does seem a little different here is the emphasis on extended family. Many people in the U.S. have their family spread across the country, but, the informant notes that pretty much all of his extended family lives in Massachusetts. The regular get-togethers show that they stay in contact and are relatively close and have developed roots in the Northeast area.
Informant: “At Andover, graduation is a big thing because, so tradition-wise it always, you lead the gradu—blue key heads, which I’ll explain in a sec, lead and, they lead and, uh, end the graduation procession and, uh, the graduation procession follows bagpipers so we have a full band of bagpipers and this is apparently like school tradition since 1778 that a full team of Scottish bagpipers starts off graduation and I hated it. And then we all—“
Lavelle: Did they wear kilts?
Informant: “What? Yeah, they were wearing full Scottish dress and they played the bagpipes. And so then we follow them and then, um, blue key heads, so then, oh and then for ours– so we go throughout the whole graduation ceremony and then what happens is our graduation, instead of people being called up, we all stand in a circle. So the entire grade, and we have like 330 people, you have 330 people standing in a circle and when they call out your name for your diploma, your diploma’s handed down the circle. So it’s passed down through each of your friends’ hands until it reaches you. Um, which was really cool because a) it went really fast because you didn’t have to wait for people to go by, so that was great, it went really quickly. Second, and then it was cool because, like, all your friends were passing it to you and then, like, everyone could celebrate as you got your diploma and you were all standing in this circle. And then when you all got your diploma you all stood in the circle for, like, a couple minutes and, like, appreciated that you were standing with your class for the last time. Um, and then the blue key heads run in the middle and learn– er, lead everybody in a round of, like, school cheers and then we break the circle.”
My informant was a graduate of Phillips Academy Andover with the class of 2011. This is an important memory for my informant as she greatly enjoyed her high school experience and looks back on her years at Andover fondly.
High school graduation is an important rite of passage for all adolescents and every high school has its own traditions that its students enjoy. High school graduation is often the last time students will be together with their class and can be a bittersweet experience. This is just one example of a unique graduation ceremony.
For more information about Andover graduation:
Informant: “There’s this special brush, or comb I guess is more accurate, that girls get when they graduate high school, or any sort of graduation beyond that, although I think is mostly for high school. But the comb is supposed to be meaningful and it’s made out of this special wood, and you’re not supposed to like, get any water on it.
Me: “Do you ever use it?”
Informant: “I do. And yeah, the wood’s supposed to be good for hair and you can stroke your hair with it however many times and it makes it healthier, I think.
Me: “Who gave it to you?”
Informant: “My mom’s cousin. She said she got one from her mom, and it’s all about womanhood and all that blah blah blah.”
Me: “Who typically gives the comb?”
Informant: “Family, relatives, mothers usually I guess.”
Me: “Do you think you’ll get one when you graduate college too?”
Informant: “Oh, no.”
It’s interesting that the comb is given to girls at graduation, and my informant stressed the fact that this is an upper education graduation gift. Yet at the same time, she mentioned how it was relevant to womanhood, and indeed it can seem like an appropriate gift to a girl who is transitioning into becoming a woman. Traditionally, I would have assumed that this process would be celebrated earlier, but since it is education-based, this custom would evidently be a more modern one, even if the item itself is older.
My informant also remarked that it’s typically a high school graduation gift, indicating again that it is part of the shift from living with one’s parents and being a girl to living elsewhere in the world and becoming an adult.
My informant didn’t know the name of the special wood used, but her gift is presumably aChangzhoucomb, which can be made out of mahogany, jujube wood, heather, and boxwood.Changzhoucombs have been in production for over 2000 years and have been traditionally used only by royalty, making them a popular and valuable award or present to anyone who may deserve it. Additionally, though the combs can be good for the hair, they seem to be mostly decorative in purpose. They are hand-painted and can often be very intricate, emphasizing the importance of beauty in a young woman.
I’m not sure how popular throughout Chinese culture it may be to give these combs as graduation presents, but no doubt they will be in use for a long, long time, bestowed as various gifts for any occasions.
My informant told me of a end-of-year tradition at her school:
“Tree planting is a tradition on campus. At the end of every year, the graduating Class plants a tree on campus. There are some restrictions on us, but for the most part we get to choose the tree. As we live, it continues to grow and be there. One of the important parts is the spade. The ritual involves the spade, which used to be used to dig the hole. Now that the hole is usually made (since the spade is old and special), every member of the Senior Class shovels a bit of dirt to fill in the hole. The Senior Class president is the last person of the Class to put in dirt to fill in the whole, and the rising Senior Class president receives the spade from her and places the final bit of dirt into the hole. Later, people fill it in properly, but the ceremony ends with the next Senior Class president.”
My informant said, “I really like this ceremony because it provides closure to the Seniors and it connects them to the schools history, since most of the trees on campus are planted by previous classes.”
This act is a moment in a liminal space that aids the Seniors in transitioning identities from students to alumnae. Establishing their identities as alumnae by joining their tree with the others, this also helps the graduating Seniors maintain their presence on campus. Through the tree, the alumnae are connected to the school, even when they are not present. Especially because each student plays a role in planting the tree, every one put effort into it and, thus, their spirits remain at school while they are away.