The biggest day of their lives

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
Martin Titchmarsh is bowled over by American high school graduation. Principal Edward Sarasin stands on the stage and surveys the huge sports hall. The last of 5,000 chairs are being put out and high above on a grantry a cable television station is setting up its cameras. It is Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School graduation. For Mr Sarasin and the staff it is the biggest day of the year; for his students it is the biggest day of their lives. He tells me "We go on the dot at six."

Parents are queuing before the doors open. By 5.30pm the hall is packed. Promptly at six the Principal nods. The orchestra strikes up "Pomp and Circumstance" (the Americans go British when they want a bit of class). The graduates move forward in procession. Six hundred students are mobilised; just like the armies of the First World War there is now no going back.

The graduates are all wearing academic gowns with mauve hoods; perched precariously on their heads are mortar boards with cerise tassels. Immediately the graduates appear the parents stand on their chairs for a better view. Hundreds of cameras flash.

Rindge and Latin is situated in the City of Cambridge across the river from Boston. Although the school is sandwiched between Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology it is a city school with a comprehensive intake. Like many schools in America it is culturally diverse with pupils from more than 60 countries of origin. Tonight Abdul-Malik, Berndt, Chenge, Concepcione, Glinski, Fitzgerald, Surpris and Venturini are all graduating together.

This is America so we must have a patriotic display. We all stand, place our hands on our hearts and pledge allegiance to the flag. The orchestra leads us into "The Star Spangled Banner" led by four graduating sopranos. The girls all manage the difficult high note in the penultimate line. Tonight we are more restrained than the crowd at the baseball park which cheers when the soprano hits the right note before a Red Sox game.

The speeches begin. The assistant principal, who is the stage manager of the evening or "Presiding Administrator" speaks first. "I'll be brief", he promises. "That'll be a first", hisses a nearby member of staff. He speaks touchingly of his pride in the students and the school. During his talk when he praises the graduates' parents he brings three students onto the stage who sing a capella the country and western song in praise of the American mother "No Charge".

The students then begin their speeches. The "valedictorian" is Randy Zheng-Yan Wu. This South East Asian American boy, who has a place at Harvard, speaks to us by video link from an Airforce Academy in California where he is competing in a maths Olympiad. The "Salutorian" Ben Blum Smith, who is bound for Yale, delivers an attack on financial cuts and declining educational standards. He bemoans the intrusion of the market and competition into education. As a representative of British education I have the good grace to blush.

The senior class address is very politically correct. After an emotional introduction, the two speakers who have been elected on a joint ticket describe as one of the successes of the student year the inclusion of lesbians and bisexuals in the school sexual harassment policy.

The address to the graduates is from the president of the Massachusetts Senate. He is introduced as "The Honourable". Americans love titles. In my time in America I was frequently addressed as Doctor, an honour which I happily accepted. I even smiled modestly in the Deep South when I was introduced as Colonel.

Her Honour the Mayor of Cambridge, Sheila Doyle Russell presents the diplomas. The children file forward. As the name of a particularly deserving - or favourite - student is read out the teachers whoop and yell. Members of staff run forward and embrace students. The parents photograph their children. Families stand and cheer as diplomas are presented.

Eventually all 600 students have graduated. As they leave the hall through cheering parents the school orchestra plays an extract from Jadin's symphony.

As the evening ended I reflected on the way in England the school year ends not with a bang but the whimper of "exam leave". Where sometimes because the school does not provide a rite of passage, the pupils provide a less savoury one of their own.

The graduation at Rindge and Latin was quintessentially American. The whole school community felt no restraint in enjoying themselves and celebrating the success of all their children. The staff hollered and yelled with genuine affection and pleasure. The parents felt proud. Most importantly the pupils beamed with achievement as they walked from the hall.

Cambridge Rindge and Latin is a very fine school. The graduation ceremony reflected its inner confidence and its ability to enjoy a communal event in an unabashed way. Most importantly it left the graduating students with happy memories. Everybody felt good about themselves, their school and about education in general.

Martin Titchmarsh is headteacher of the Nobel School, Stevenage, Herts. He visited America for eight week this summer on a Churchill Fellowship.

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