It’s graduation season, when scores of students polish up final papers and cram for those last exams all in hopes that the next big thing will be even better than what they have just worked so hard to complete. Graduation is indeed a big deal deserving of a large celebration with family, friends, cake, and a very silly hat.
Historians can fairly comfortably trace the roots of the traditional square graduation cap (commonly referred to as a mortarboard or a trencher) all the way back to the early 14th century and no one is ruling out that the history may go back further than that. Likely evolving from the headwear of clergy, peculiar caps started showing up on the heads of the most prestigious of academics in the earliest English-speaking universities. Typically, the more important the academic, the sillier the hat (because nothing says “I’m smarter than you” like absurd headwear).
But because it’s hard to see someone in a goofy hat and not want one for yourself, it wasn’t long before lesser scholars (like English majors) began to don flat-topped square caps (the particularly rebellious ones bedazzled the tops with brilliantly coded messages such as: Hi Mom).
Today the caps, complete with tassels (an accessory added sometime in the 18th century), are worn by academics throughout much of the world, but outside of Oxford and Cambridge (which appear pompous and circumstantial when compared to their more casual counterparts), the full academic dress is reserved for graduation ceremonies. Every spring graduates (from PhD recipients to High School seniors) line up in their ridiculous hats.
And apparently even Kindergartners get in on the action, and, I have to say, I am a little bitter about it. I’m going to reveal one of my deepest secrets to you, my faithful blog readers (and anyone who stumbles in by accident while innocently Googling bricks and mortar AND graduated cylinders): I never graduated from Kindergarten. That is an accomplishment that I cannot list on my CV and since I have learned that Kindergarten graduation is a real thing, it has become an endless source of shame for me.
Oh, I went to Kindergarten alright. My teacher was an old woman named Mrs. T. How old she was I couldn’t tell you because I was five at the time and she had gray hair so in my memory she was about a bajillion years old. I also remember that she wore bright red lipstick, often on her front teeth, and that she was a little bit scary.
Still, I probably learned a lot from her. We had those inflatable letter people in our classroom and a magic carpet to sit on for story time. We were required to put together a lot of puzzles (and who knows what might have happened if we failed to complete that task) and write our letters just so. We fought over who got to play in the giant playhouse and we drank a lot of milk. I even made a lifelong friend who is starting to get a big head because she has been mentioned peripherally in two (now three) of my posts.
But I never graduated.
None of us did. I don’t know if we were just the dumb class or what, but even though Mrs. T. sent us all on to muddle our way through the first grade, there were no graduation caps for us. No one played Pomp and Circumstance. No one took video of us tugging at our itchy collars, tripping in our fancy shoes, or picking our noses right there in front of everybody.
But I guess my sad story has a happy ending because it is with a great deal of pride that I can report that both of my sons are first generation Kindergarten graduates. Just a few nights ago I watched as my youngest son marched down the aisle of the high school auditorium, a mortarboard atop his little head, flash bulbs erupting all around him. I watched in awe as the Kindergarten class of 2013 stood and sang in (kind of) unison a parody of “New York, New York” (“…I want to be a part of it; first grade, first grade…”).
Okay so it struck me as perhaps a tiny bit over-the-top when my son’s name was called and he marched across the stage to shake hands with the principal (he reached with his left because, like most Kindergartners, he is more likely to hold hands than seal a business deal) and accept his diploma. I’m sure his Kindergarten degree will serve him well and earn him a much coveted position among the first grade classes of his hallowed elementary school.
But just maybe there was something important happening in that auditorium. Robert Fulghum might have been right when he wrote his famous essay “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Kindergarteners learn to share and to play fair. They learn to be aware of what’s around them and they aspire to “live a balanced life—learn a little and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day a little.”
Most importantly, they start on a long educational journey, hopeful that the next big thing will be even better than what they have just worked so hard to complete. Kindergartners don their academic garb not as a celebration of completion, but as a promise of what is to come, a promise that someday they will learn proper nose-picking etiquette (because we have to have a reason to celebrate middle school graduation). They wear their mortarboards with pride because nothing says “Someday I’m going to be smarter than you” like absurd headwear.