In 1960 High School Graduation in Mantua, Ohio, was a two stage affair. In Stage I, Senior Class members and their families dressed in their Sunday finest (a most appropriate description) and drove to the Mantua church of whichever denomination had come to the top of the denominational rotation. I have no idea how many churches participated, but it couldn’t have been many. There were few auditoriums in the village large enough to accommodate seventy-five class members and their families, and even fewer churches. Even if the search area included the entire area of the three-township school district, it wouldn’t have made much difference. There were even fewer large buildings out among the farms and crossroad villages (well, except for barns… and barns were notoriously short of pews, chairs, pianos, organs and podiums).
Seniors and their families arrived at the designated church (almost all well in advance of the heavily promoted 7:30 pm deadline), and were met by school administrators and teachers who spent a few minutes each with their assigned families before urging them inside. Once inside and seated, we began the hour of torture known as the “Baccalaureate.” Mr. Milhone, Crestwood District Superintendent spent fifteen minutes giving a five minute welcome and introduced the next speakers; a Baptist Minister and a Catholic Priest. St. Joseph’s Parish encompassed most of the Crestwood District, and had a school of its own that drew students from several surrounding districts with no Catholic schools. However, many of its parishioners sent their children to the Crestwood schools. As much as thirty per cent of students in some classes in the district were St. Joe parishioners. To the Old Man’s great chagrin, this meant that a Catholic priest was always on the Baccalaureate program. I didn’t understand how religion of any stripe was a part of our graduation, given the separation clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. But in 1960 no one, most especially no student, raised such questions. In any event, neither the Old Man nor I said anything about it.
First the minister and then the priest told us how proud we should be of our achievements, how much was expected of us as we, in the words of the priest “sallied forth to do battle with the vicissitudes of life,” (yeah, I had to look it up too) and how wondrous the rewards for those among us who... I may have fallen asleep about there. A sharp jolt in my ribs from the Old Man’s elbow brought me to full attention, and a glance at his face was met with a glower that told me there would be no more escape into the Land of Nod. I returned my attention to the front of the church. Each man finished his turn at the podium with a prayer that was more sermon than prayer and seemed longer as well. By the time both had finished we were at least twenty minutes behind the schedule we’d been handed as we entered. But we were getting to the meat of the meeting.
Superintendent Milhone reappeared, and introduced a local politician whose task it was to inspire us. Maintaining my vow to avoid a revisit to the Land of Nod became a terrible contest of wills... mine against the terrible pull of sleep. Despite the boredom of listening to a twenty minute speech read slowly in a monotone, my will to avoid the Old Man’s wrath prevailed... mostly.
By a quarter to nine it was over... fini... ended. Mr. Milhone took the podium once again to bid us goodnight and remind all graduates to be at the school auditorium (known at other times as the gym) by six o’clock Saturday evening for final sizing, line-up and so forth.
Saturday evening was a reprise of Wednesday evening, without the prayers. Instead we had another “inspirational” speaker. I don’t remember who it was, but our Congressman or a State Legislator would be a reasonable guess. Our Class Valedictorian, a young lady of awe-inspiring intelligence, also spoke, as did Mr. Jama our Class Mentor, a young Literature Teacher just out of college. At the end of all the speeches a table was brought to the front of the stage. We graduates had been organized according to a pre-printed list, and were seated in a group. Once the table filled with rolled diplomas was set at the front of the stage, we were asked to stand and walk to the stage in a single line. Our names, in the order in which we were seated were called as we came to the top of the steps and halted. Each graduate then walked to where Mr. Converse, the High School Principal (sans cigar) stood and received a roll of heavy paper wrapped by a ribbon. When it was unwrapped later, the “diploma” said in Olde English print, “Your diploma has been mailed to your home address.” Trying to keep diplomas in line with the list and the list in line with the order of students just posed too great a risk, and the risk of loss during the night’s celebrations was mitigated as well. Well, at least it wasn’t a blank diploma, and come Monday every Senior’s home mailbox contained a package that included a diploma inserted into a padded folder in the class colors of the Crestwood High Class of 1960.
The last “diploma” was handed out, mortarboards were tossed in the air and graduates and parents headed for home to host graduation parties. The Old Man told me to get a coffee or something and be home in half an hour. When I arrived, the Prom decorations, including the crepe paper and branch flowering tree filled the living room. There were soft drinks in tubs of ice, plates of little sandwiches, lunchmeat ham rolled around cream cheese centers and a dozen other snacks. But it was the tree that held my attention. Under the tree was a springtime Christmas, and it was all mine. I tore into the packages enthusiastically. Although every Aunt and Uncle had bought something, I don’t remember many of the gifts specifically. I do remember a briefcase with a smaller briefcase in it, a watch (the first I’d ever had), and just like at Christmas... clothes.
When I looked up, at least eight or ten classmates were there. Word of the sandwiches had spread, apparently. After a few minutes, one of the guys offered me a ride to other parties. The Old Man said to go ahead, so I went. I believe I got home around three in the morning. And I had discovered something... the reason I had few friends was because I was so “standoffish.” I was stunned. I’d thought the problem was that they didn’t want to be friends with me. They’d thought I didn’t want friends. There has to be a better way. High school would have been so much better if one side or the other had just started the conversation. *sigh* I never really got much better at it.
That graduation night when I got home, I felt like the king of the world. I’d had fun the whole night. I had spent the night driving from party to party with a bunch of people I hardly knew who were happy to have me along, and everywhere I went I heard about the way cool party at my house. The trip to Washington DC looked to be a lot more fun than I’d thought it was going to.