A Shameful Secret and a Silly Hat

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.

Andrea Mantegna: Ludovico Gonzaga, 1474.

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.

Gowns showing hoods, from behind, walking alon...
Gowns showing hoods, from behind, walking along Parks Road in Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


11 thoughts on “A Shameful Secret and a Silly Hat

  1. Not only did we not get a Kindergarten graduation we did not get a middle school graduation (unless you count getting our end-of-year awards-handed-out-by-a-very-pregnant-eighth-grader as a rite of passage). I like to think this made our high school graduation even more meaningful. Maybe not. Maybe graduation is just about leaving the last chapter behind so you can head off into something even more exciting. Maybe that’s why kindergarten advancement was not celebrated in our day, because our school district embraced a more pragmatic view that it’s all downhill from kindergarten. Congrats to your family on your first generation graduates. My children will never have the opportunity either, but maybe my grandchildren will attend a more celebratory grade school.

    1. Wow, I must have blocked out that award ceremony. My kiddos ended Kindergarten in two different states and both had graduations. I think you better complain to someone or something. Of course, in some ways (mostly in the playing with play doh and calling it meaningful education ways), I think it really is all downhill from Kindergarten.

  2. Oh, how do you live with yourself? Sshhh… don’t tell anyone, but I didn’t graduate from kindergarten either. Or middle school, if the truth be told. I had to make up for my earlier transgressions with 3 college graduations – AA, BA, and MBA (my husband always tells me the AA doesn’t count though 🙂 )

    1. I can’t believe I am admitting to so many of my shortcomings, but I didn’t graduate from middle school either. I’m just trying to scrape by in the world with a BS and MA. At least the future looks brighter for the much more accomplished younger generation. By the way, the AA totally counts.

  3. Velma Finnern

    Well, I’ll admit it. In the mid-1950s, there wasn’t even a kindergarten for me to attend, let alone graduate.

  4. Trinity

    I love your blog! Thanks for following History Undusted as well! And on the subject of graduation, I will say that I never had a cap and gown; I graduated in a class of one (was academically bored, took my junior and senior years in one year, self-taught at home, blah, blah,blah), so you could say that I have a class reunion every morning in the mirror. B|

    1. Thanks! I’m glad to have found History Undusted. I think class reunions are kind of like looking into a mirror anyway, a mirror in which you still have bad hair, stupid clothes, and braces but you’ve also gotten older a fatter. Your way sounds much more pleasant 🙂

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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