Graduates, you are probably being told that now is the time in your life for dreams, hope, and fear of having to work for minimum wage, as you prepare for this next, ridiculously crucial, almost suffocatingly super-important step in your life. But don’t be nervous, at least not until your first college bill comes due, as we are here to help you to understand the history behind this most important of ceremonies involving thin, flammable robes.
It’s Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Mortarboard!
[pullquote type=”right”]The cap, called a mortarboard, is square and flat, apparently to maximize the amount of injury caused when it is tossed into the air at the end of the ceremony.[/pullquote]The graduation gown you are wearing originated in the Middle Ages, when scholars wore long gowns to protect themselves from the cold in unheated lecture halls, because black North Face jackets hadn’t yet been invented. The cap, called a mortarboard, is flat and square, apparently to maximize the amount of injury caused when it is tossed into the air at the end of the ceremony. The tassle was added in the 19th century in order to help swat away flies, and it is traditionally worn on the right side until the student graduates, when it is moved to your 3rd dresser drawer next to that John Mayer concert t-shirt you never wear because it’s too small but you can’t bring yourself to throw it away because you paid 29 bucks for it. The term “mortarboard” is used to describe the cap because of its resemblance to a tool used in masonry, although we’re not sure what masonry tool requires a tassel. The traditional tossing of the hat comes at the end of the ceremony, and symbolizes the graduate’s flight into the future, as well as, for nerds like us, the glorious end of getting stuffed into lockers.
Pomp and Eruption?
The composition “Pomp and Circumstance”, which you will most likely hear during the ceremony, was composed by Sir Edward Elgar, and became a graduation tradition at the beginning of the 1900’s. It was first used at Yale University (Official Motto: “If You Have To Ask, You Can’t Afford It”), where Elgar was asked by Yale music professor Samuel Sanford, of the hit TV show “Sanford and Son”, to compose a piece of music that would keep parents awake for the interminable 3 hour ceremony that stretched before them. Elgar, of course, failed miserably, but even so, other Ivy League schools such as Princeton, Rutgers, Faber, Columbia, Universal, Dreamworks and Colleen’s School of Personal Poise adopted the song, as all they had at the time was a lame cover of Van Halen’s “Eruption” played on two tubas and a xylophone.
Val, Vivian, Velma and Vicki
Diplomas were originally made from sheepskins in ancient Rome, as sheep were apparently the most readily available writing surface, with the downside that they tended to jam in your printer unless you used the manual paper tray. These days, parchment paper is used, on which the graduate’s name, date of the ceremony, and seal of the school is printed, along with the Latin phrase, “Sonuerunt, et non opus est MacDonalds” (“Good Luck Not Working At MacDonalds”). The “Valedictorian”, whose name is derived from the Latin words vale dicere (“say farewell to your savings”), is a student chosen to give a closing speech to their fellow students, quite often reminding them that they have great potential, should strive for their dreams, and eventually move out of their parent’s basement even though the WiFi is free. The Valedictorian is usually chosen because of their high grade point average and ability to communicate encouraging concepts such as “subsidized loans” and “parental promissory notes”. Along with the Valdictorian, there is a Vivian, Velma, and Vickivictorian, whose background role it is to sing “doo wop” and “oh, yeah!” at crucial points in the speech. Then there is the Salutatorian, whose job it is to salute the Valedictorian because of their higher grade point average and then leave the stage.
So, graduates, as the world of opportunity stretches before you like an extremely long line at MacDonalds, we invite you to remember, when you throw your hat, aim it at the guys who stuffed you in your locker.
[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h6″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=”book”]This column is featured in the book Dubious Knowledge (Book One)[/feature_headline]