Save the last dance for later

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Society's obsession with ceremony has made a mockery of graduation days as stretch limos draw up at the school gates, says Gordon Cairns

AS the academic year slowly winds down, the season of graduations is nearly upon us, where years of hard work, strenuous mental activity and sacrifice will be rewarded in a significant, never to be forgotten ceremony.

Last June, it was Alexander Samuel's turn to go through this process. In mortarboard and gown, he was filmed by his proud father receiving a diploma, before going on to a family party. Having completed one stage of his academic career, he was ready to face his next challenge when he began primary school that August.

Although it seems that each new generation has a more informal way of doing things than the preceding generation, marked by the fall in more traditional ceremonial occasions such as church services or weddings, the desire for ceremony itself has not diminished. Or to be more precise, the desire for ceremonies involving offspring has not diminished.

For nursery schools, the graduation ceremony can be used as a publicity tool to attract new customers, although it must be difficult for the children who are held back from primary school for a year to understand why they can't take part. Primary schools have also adopted the practice of graduating their pupils into secondary school.

I heard of one mother hiring a stretch limousine to take her daughter and friends up to the ceremony in her primary school. This puts other families in a quandary. A parent with reservations about overkill may find it difficult to deny their child the same opportunity.

Like fast food and reality television, another insidious aspect of American culture has sneaked into the UK, not necessarily for the benefit of the British way of life. I can't help feeling that the significance of college and university graduation is being eroded. If all that is required from nursery, primary and secondary school graduates is to turn up, the achievement of graduating from college or university will be diluted.

As a child, I stood through many award ceremonies for the Boys' Brigade and Sunday school watching others being rewarded for success in football, athletics, marching, Bible knowledge or first aid until it was my turn to step forward and receive my award for good attendance. I was painfully aware that this award was a sop for turning up every week but not being particularly good at anything. Children who are graduating from nursery and primary will perhaps eventually come to this realisation that their success in growing a year older is essentially hollow.

If ceremonies become more part of everyday life, the ceremonies that matter, for example weddings, will be reruns of earlier occasions. I was recently asked to photograph a couple of sixth-year pupils in all their expensive finery before they went to their leavers' dance (how long will it be before these dances will adopt the Americanisation proms?).

As I photographed them, I tried desperately to avoid wedding photo cliches but as the young man wore a kilt and the young lady a cream dress, this proved almost impossible. As the white stretch limo manoeuvred its way into this Lanarkshire mining village, the extended families and neighbours were all there waving the happy couple off. Possibly their wedding day will come with a sense of dej... vu and how will they explain the photos on their mums' walls to future partners?

Of course it is important to reward success and give children a sense of closure - that one period of life is over as another begins - but surely these events could be low key and kept in the classroom. If the prizes come too early and easily, what is there to look forward to?

Gordon Cairns teaches English at Our Lady's High in Motherwell.

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