In the Brazilian Amazon, young boys belonging to the indigenous Sateré-Mawé tribe mark their coming of age when they turn 13 in a Bullet and Ant Initiation. They search the jungle for bullet ants which are sedated by a leader who submerges them in an herbal solution. The ants are then weaved into gloves with the stingers pointed inwards. An hour or so later, the ants wake up angrier than ever, and the initiation begins. Each boy has to wear the gloves for 10 minutes.
In Amish tradition, Rumspringa marks the time when youth turn 16 and are finally able to enjoy unsupervised weekends away from family. During this time, they are encouraged to enjoy whatever pleasures they like, be that modern clothing or alcohol. The purpose of this period is to allow Amish youth the opportunity to see and experience the world beyond their culture and upbringing.
The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania have several rites of passage that carry boys into manhood. Boys between the ages of 10-20 come together to be initiated as the new “warrior class” of the tribe, placed in dozens of houses built for the occasion. The night before the ceremony the boys sleep outside in the forest, and at dawn they return for a day of singing and dancing. They drink a mixture of alcohol, cow’s blood, and milk, while also consuming large portions of meat.
I could go on, but these are three of dozens of “rite of passage” rituals I found after a bit of googling on my computer. I was compelled to do so after witnessing a rite of passage in person last Saturday -- the graduation ceremony of the Vermillion High School Class of 2020.
We usually don’t think of graduation in the cultural context of a “rite.” Or, at least I never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been to every high school graduation held in Vermillion for over a quarter of a century now. One tends to blend into the other and before you know it, none of them are all that memorable.
Last Saturday was different, however. I think I’ll always remember the graduation ceremony of the VHS Class of 2020. Yes, this is the year of COVID-19, so 2020 will stick out in all of our collective memories. And, Saturday marks the first outdoor high school graduation I’ve ever attended.
Saturday also marks a time when it hit me, so to speak -- the “it” being the reason that young people, after completing their high school graduations year after year, don a funny looking hat and gown and gather together one last time.
It’s not about the hat. It’s not about the speeches where important people say pretty much the same important things year after year.
It’s all about giving graduates and their families a way to signal that these young people who we’ve all watched grow up over the years are, in fact, moving from one chapter of life to another.
There’s another aspect of graduation that I’ve often ignored. The ceremony isn’t just for the graduates.
In the three examples of rites of passage I’ve cited above, adults are involved. I mean, bullet ants don’t get weaved into gloves all by themselves. And like the old joke about whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if there is no one to hear it, would our members of the Class of 2020 really graduate if there was no one to witness them receiving their diplomas?
I don’t think they would. That’s another thing I learned Saturday morning.
When COVID-19 hit, so many of the things that have become a normal part of young people’s lives, including those of our high school students, came screeching to a halt. No return to the school building. No basketball tournaments. Being forced to learn remotely at home. No spring sports AT ALL. No band or vocal concerts. No school play. No prom.
In mid-May, the school held a virtual graduation ceremony for Vermillion’s Class of 2020 -- a collection of videos and things pieced together and streamed over the internet. I tried watching it at its scheduled time, but couldn’t get an internet link to the video stream as I’m sure it was overloaded at the time with hundreds of other people, all trying to log in at the same time.
So, frankly, I forgot about it. At the time, I believed the students would share my attitude and simply cross graduation off their list of “Things We Wish We Could Do But Can’t Because Of COVID.”
Again, I was wrong. When offered the opportunity last spring to take part in a ceremony in July, Vermillion seniors enthusiastically agreed to the idea.
On Saturday, the VHS Class of 2020 made the symbolic walk to the next chapter of their lives in front of classmates, teachers and people who care about them.
Friends and family in the audience bore witness to their accomplishment and their new status. Saturday’s ceremony was needed, because without the pomp, without the silly costume, without the walk and speeches, school just kind of merges into life.
I learned it was a rite of passage -- an experience that marks a major milestone or change in a person’s life. I was lucky enough to witness it and learn a few things, all at the same time.
I learned that graduations help all of us -- grads and adults alike -- make sense of change not only as individuals but also as a community. A rite of passage helps graduates gain a deeper awareness of the transitions going on in their lives. It helps the adults who witness the ceremony by providing a sense of continuity with their loved ones’ personal stories and of connection with the community that made their education possible.
And, fortunately, no simultaneous drinking of alcohol, cow’s blood, and milk was involved.