An all-important rite of passage every student undergoes is the graduation ceremony. Graduation is a life-changing moment that means not just fulfilling all academic requirements, but also leaving the comforts of the school, its hallowed halls and classrooms, and the company of classmates-turned-comrades. But before one gets to assume the new responsibilities and challenges of this milestone, one has to go through frenetic months of pre-commencement exercise preparations that can leave one exhilarated and dazed for days.
The attendant rites of a graduation were conceived in Europe, but it took the American teachers to formalize a program here when they helped set up a public system of education for the Philippines—integrating graduation marches, valedictory addresses and honor ribbons to the whole ceremony. Elementary school graduations were not exempt from these mandatory rituals and practices as I recall my very own Class of 1969 graduation from Mabalacat Elementary School.
I knew graduation was fast approaching when I saw my teachers busy sewing ribbons for honor students in their lounge. As our our school simply could not afford medals., simple doilies were sewn instead , on which were attached a short ribbon strip. On this, a teacher would type or write with a felt-tip pen, the name of the student, his class and section, the teacher-in-charge, and the honors earned. Simple and cheap these ribbons may have been, I always swelled with pride every time I receive one or two—never mind if the handwriting was smudged or if the doily was not a perfect circle. I still have most of my elementary medals tucked away inside a desk—fraying badges of honor and symbols of my young life’s accomplishments.
The obligatory class picture also had to be taken moments before the actual commencement event. As early as 1 o’clock on a hot March afternoon, girls would be up and about to have their hair set, make-up applied and dainty graduation dress tried on. Boys had few worries because a typical graduation outfit would be just a white shirt and a dark pair of pants—all readily available from one’s wardrobe. An optional bowtie is easy to find. One just needed to make sure that his black leather shoes are neatly polished.
That momentous day, I remembered how my white, starched trubenize fitted me like a T, but my pair of pants was a disaster. It was tight at the crotch and was hopelessly kuto (short), a flaw that was highlighted by the white socks I was wearing. It was “grin and bear it”, all the way from the photo shoot to the stage.
Marching in cadence to the taped music of “Pomp and Circumstance”, our batch strode proudly to accept our diplomas as our beaming parents looked at us from their seats. (Years later, in high school, the graduation song of choice was the Beach Boys’ “Graduation Day”, while graduates of the ‘80s marched to the song of Raymond Lauchengco’s “Farewell”, from the Bagets movie).
I remember how disappointed I was when I got my “diploma”—it was just a rolled paper bond tied with a flimsy blue ribbon. The real parchment paper diploma was only released 2 weeks after our graduation march, together with my souvenir class photo, preserving forever an image of me, a 12 year old graduate in ill-fitting pants.
My graduation photo is not unlike this snapshot of the 1926 Graduating Class of Sta. Ana Elementary School, but this one is more creatively rendered and specially designed to pay tribute to Thomasite Dr. Alan C. Derkum, (top left photo) who was once a supervising teacher in Pampanga, particularly in Mexico. Together with his wife, Agnes, Alan Derkum, who hails from Wayne, Indiana, sailed to the Philippines on the transport Thomas and worked tirelessly in the country as an educator and a civil servant. He rose to become a district superintendent in Tarlac in 1918, while his wife taught at the Tarlac High School. After over a decade in the country, the Derkums—with 4 children, all Philippine-born—returned to the United States in 1925.
It is hard not to wax sentimental when one recalls the end of carefree schooldays and the start of a new, but uncharted chapter in our lives. As the song goes, “no matter where our paths may wind, we’ll remember always—graduation day!”. Indeed, the images of our school-age youth—the Gabaldon elementary building that I walked to daily, the faces of classmates and mentors, the scent of crayons, colored paper and library glue—all these are not just preserved in yearbooks, school journals and class photos, but are indelibly etched in the heart.