By Ashley Lodato
If you’re like me, just hearing the “Pomp and Circumstance” march makes you tear up a little (or collapse in a blubbering mess, which I anticipate happening to me when my older daughter graduates in 2022). The music was written at the turn of the 20th Century by British composer Edward Elgar and was played at the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII. Four years later when Elgar was awarded an honorary doctorate at Yale, the music played as he walked offstage and has been a defining component of commencement ceremonies across the United States ever since.
Elgar apparently once described “Pomp and Circumstance” as “a tune that comes once in a lifetime”— eerily prescient for a song that evolved into marking what is typically each student’s greatest life achievement thus far. High school graduation is a milestone, and the commencement ceremony pays tribute to this accomplishment. Life is filled with metaphorical mountains and valley, with moments of great joy and triumph, periods of profound sadness or despair, and plenty of flat ground in between.
But true milestones are relatively few in number — graduations, marriages, divorces, births, deaths — and thus they stand out as markers of not only the passage of time, but also of the growth of an individual.
What you realize later in life is that although high school graduation is undeniably a milestone, its relative significance in your life diminishes (indeed, most of the adults I spoke to over the weekend could barely recall their own high school commencement ceremonies — and not just those who graduated in the 1960s, either). At the time, graduation represents a crowning achievement — the culmination of a particular phase of life. Unless you have lost a parent or a sibling in your earlier years — a life-changing misfortune that would eclipse all others — that commencement ceremony most likely notes the time when you realize that your life is about to change significantly; you’re officially moving on to another phase.
All the ceremony, all the celebration, all the words of wisdom and inspiration passed on by others, the flowers, the cash, the accolades — what those provide you is a small dose of temporary glory, and a large injection of the knowledge that you are now part of a broader community. You’ve been aware of your family unit, your circle of friends, your school community of teachers and staff who have shepherded you on your academic journey. You’re probably connected with a wider network as well: neighbors, friends’ parents, those who have watched from afar as you grew and blossomed.
But the larger community you’re joining after high school graduation is the community of adults who are only dimly aware of you as an individual but who embrace you as a contributing member of a generation that will one day be the decision-makers, innovators, and change-makers in society. Your communities up until this point have been nurturing you through the process of discovering your strengths; your new community provides a framework for you to act upon them.